The Tree Fort on Carnation Lane by Horace Ho

Translated by Darryl Sterk (Balestier Press, 2017)

Publisher’s Blurb

Daniel Fang’s mid-thirties are marked by the birth of his daughter and the death of a childhood friend. His daughter’s birth and infancy reminds him of his own boyhood, his friend’s death of the good times he had with back in their old neighbourhood.

They were the kids from the wrong side of the temple, kids who grew up in the night market and next to the red light district. Their parents didn’t like them visiting the market by themselves and expressly forbade them from taking a single step into Carnation Lane. But the appearance of a chained orangutan in a night market spectacle the year the three friends turned twelve convinced them to defy the parental ban. While the adults were away at a protest against the Martial Law, they stole into the banned zone, released the beast from bondage and led it upstream, on a quest to find the fabled zoo.

The memory of this all-but-forgotten childhood experience comes back after news of his friend’s suicide. It seems to Daniel Fang that the two events must somehow be connected. A cryptologist by training, he decides to investigate, hoping to solve the mystery of his friend’s death and decode the message contained within the memory that has shaped, even warped, their later lives.

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Zahra Raja (July 2017)

This is the first book I’ve read for many years that wasn’t in a recommended list for a module at university, and I was keen to read something that was stimulating but would not ask too much of my poor, overworked brain. The Tree Fort on Carnation Lane was perfect for this purpose. Daniel Fang is an unemployed professor of cryptology and is also a stay-at-home dad for his young daughter. After receiving the news of his childhood friend’s suicide, he is thrust back into memories of his childhood in the night market; in particular, the events leading up to the freeing of a chained orang-utan forced to perform in a night market show and their desperate bid to deliver it to a fabled zoo. Daniel is convinced that these events and his friend’s suicide are connected, and thus decides to attempt to decrypt the code of his memories, hoping to solve the mystery of his friend’s death.

What I most enjoyed about this book was how the author decided to use a non-linear narrative; each chapter flashes between different past memories and the present time, which allows us to witness Daniel’s own analysis of his memories and the lead-up to Ilya’s suicide. The turning point, in Daniel’s mind, is the failure of their quest to free the orang-utan. The quest and the events leading up to it is the first and last time we see Ilya rebel against his overbearing mother, and it is implied in the book that she may have been partially to blame for the suicide of her husband. Once the quest fails, Ilya’s rebellious spark too disappears and he submits to his mother’s wishes to pursue a career in music.

When Daniel reaches the limit of the memories he has of Ilya at the end of the book, he is not content with his final decryption, and decides to revisit them again from a different perspective to see if any new information can be gleaned. Undoubtedly, this is his way of dealing with his grief; whether or not he will ever come to terms with Ilya’s suicide is questionable due to the novel’s circular conclusion.

This novel will appeal to a broad audience, as it is not an overly difficult read but provides enough challenge to be interesting in its plot and structure. The author has an excellent command of language which is skilfully translated into English, and the scene is painted in a way that doesn’t feel tired or clichéd, which when combined with a well thought out story made for novel that I couldn’t put down. I will be checking out his other works!