We don’t have to start if you’re not ready.’The epigraph on the first page of Wang Ting-Huo’s award-winning novel invites pause. It may seem like an odd introduction, but Wang Ting-Huo’s career has in some ways defined by a sense of pause; after writing to acclaim through his twenties, he was, upon marrying, told by his father that he would have to choose between a writing career and a marriage. Having succeeded in the business world, My Enemy’s Cherry Tree marks Wang’s dramatic return to fiction, and the novel has since won a number of awards in his native Taiwan.
Wang’s protagonist by contrast has left his job, now owning an unsuccessful café in which he also lives, while he waits for his disappeared wife, Qiuzi. With knowledge of the author’s story, the sense of sliding doors, and the notion of parallel realities within the narrative is always at the forefront of our minds as readers. As previously mentioned, pauses are essential to My Enemy’s Cherry Tree. They weave between the narrator’s chance encounter with Luo Yiming (the rich businessman who ended his marriage), to Yiming’s mental illness after the encounter, to the narrator’s conversation with Yiming’s daughter, Baixu, about his life and marriage.
Wang’s narrator sets up a coffee shop in a small town near the South China Sea, waiting for his wife, Qiuzi, to return to him. Years earlier they took a walk along the beach nearby and she promised to wait for him there, forever, if he ever left her. His patience after nearly a year without any sign of her, with a failing business and public speculation about his vendetta against Luo Yiming, is most apparent in his detachment from himself.
Like his narrator, Wang worked in advertising and property building. The corporate aspects of the narrator’s life alternate with his recollections of Qiuzi. They can feel overly long, distractions from the focus on Qiuzi, but this is intentional. Work had the same effect on the narrator’s life. The world of advertising and salesmanship, which offers alternatives to his unpleasant childhood (living with a handicapped mother without proper medical care, and a severely depressed father), distracts the narrator from his marriage. His fascination leads Qiuzi to believe that business is more important than anything, including her.
Qiuzi hides herself from her husband, and from the reader as well. Baixu, whose conversations with the narrator frame his recollections, serves as a reflection of Qiuzi in his mind. Wang’s descriptions of her focus on her legs and her clothing, a misogynistic gaze that is disappointing whether it originates in the narrator’s thoughts or Wang’s. The corporate scenes contain some of the novel’s most detailed characters; the narrator’s boss, Boss Motor, is a youngest son of eight who suffers from gout. His frustration with himself, as an ill person in a position of power, recalls Lantimas’s The Favourite. Boss Motor requires the narrator’s help to prove himself to his brothers, and he does so through a reference to The Old Man and the Sea in a new model for developing communities, rather than single properties. Hemingway’s themes also relate to the rest of the novel; the South China Sea is the border of the narrator’s search for his wife, and he remains as patient as Santiago for over a year.
Wang reveals his literariness in his style as well as his references. Dialogue in the novel is designated by question marks, italics, and only by dialogue tags in the prose, exposing the variety of ways in which people communicate. There are more honest forms of communication than others, and the narrator laments that he did not share everything with Qiuzi even as he shares everything with Baixu. Baixu believes conversation will reveal his soul, which the narrator doubts. He speaks honestly without hope of healing his soul.
The lack of resolution reflects not just the cyclical nature of the novel, but perhaps also our author’s attitude towards the themes of discontent that bubble underneath the doomed love story at the heart of the novel. For while the novel beautifully ruminates on lost love and desire, relationships are always threatened or even ended by material means, by those with power, or money, or by both — the owner of the eponymous cherry tree.
The epigraphs at the beginning of the three sections seem vague, but they are taken from dialogue or narration in the following section. We don’t have to start if you’re not ready is not a general message to the reader about Wang’s book, it is an assurance from Baixu as she asks the narrator to tell his story and cleanse his soul. The circular style provides closure to the book’s narrator, even as he repeatedly doubts it, and the novel ends with acceptance of things ended before their time: a marriage, a cherry tree. They live on through the narrator’s memories until he can move away from them. Like many stories of waiting and loss, we end without a sense of fulfilment, but our narrator’s acceptance at the novel’s end promises more life to come.
Words by Emma Deshpande.
My Enemy’s Cherry Tree, Wang Ting-Kuo, (trans. Howard Goldblatt), Granta, 2019
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