[REVIEW] “Tales from Life and the Afterlife: Cyril Wong’s This Side of Heaven” by Amanda Chan

{Written by Amanda Chan, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Cyril Wong, This Side of Heaven, Epigram Books, 2020. 176 pgs.

CYRIL WONG_This Side of Heaven

Fire is mesmerising in the way that flames flicker and burn before eventually dwindling to ashes. As spectators, we watch fire from a distance. We wonder if we should explore the heat or stay away. This Side of Heaven encapsulates slivers of fire in a slow dance, always moving even when we are unsure whether we are going forwards or backwards, in Heaven or Hell.

This Side of Heaven is split into three parts, told from thirty perspectives, one of which is The Girl, who appears at multiple points in the novel’s timeline. Each perspective comes from a different person gathered in the garden, all of whom have arrived from separate areas. Some of them regain consciousness in homes, some in churches and even fall from the sky. From there, we witness each person’s story, bringing light to the darkness within them. We hear about their death and their wanderings before coming the garden. They are deeply honest about their flaws, and in the garden, they find a common ground, a common language, a common yearning. Like seeds being laid into the soil, each person speaks of their suffering, crimes and desires.

We soon come to know that these storytellers have been repeatedly gathering, only to tell their stories, forget and begin again. Wong demonstrates impermanence and the revolving meanings we assign to our lived experience and what we do not fully understand. The Victim mentions their philosophy, reflecting other perspectives in This Side of Heaven: “Heaven is what you make of it.”

The transition to the latter two parts of the novel shows that what we truly know is less than what we think we know. Perhaps Heaven is what we make it, and perhaps celestial beings are orchestrating the magic after all, as mentioned by The Photographer.

The Architects could be the answer to all thirty people gathered in the garden. Described only in dialogue with minimal narration, they have no faces, but they are not strangers. They are comedic, abstract and relatable. The moment when The Architects descend into the form of musicians and announce themselves to one another is grin-inducing. Other than being faceless, they differ from the people in the garden because they know the ultimate reasons why each person ended up there in the first place. They also know their fates. True to their names, they design the layout and plan the terrain for the inhabitants.

There is a tendency towards subtle similarities between all of the characters in the novel. There are also times when the characters attempt to distance themselves from each other through their remarks or actions. At times, after speaking, some walk away. Some incite anger and further judgment from others. For example, the Priest confesses to being a pedophile, and in disgust, The Matriarch hits the people around her and says to The Priest, “We are nothing alike.”

They may not be alike in the events of their lives, but they still share the connection of being flawed, of wanting something that remains outside of their grasp. The inhabitants of the garden desire love though they cannot keep love on this side of Heaven. They glimpse it, and they have flashes of how it feels. This is what we experience on earth in the heavens and hells we make for ourselves. We want to put love in a box. Each perspective in the novel seems to fit into a box or a stereotype. However, in reality, love is uncontainable. Love is so familiar to us, and still, love is a mystery.

The last perspective from The Girl sheds light on the novel’s overall arc, where she is free to roam wherever she wants, but she chooses to stay and help the other people in the garden. The Girl herself has previously appeared in multiple forms, and like a magnet, draws others towards her presence.

There is also a slight turn, albeit a predictable one, in the role of The Architects. They previously said they were kindly, but then they evolve into naming themselves The Furies, and at last, they can be perceived as evil, attempting to sweep the people in the garden into oblivion for their gain. In seeing the Architects react to the humans and The Girl, there is a cycle where every character believes they are in control. When The Girl makes an appearance towards the end, even The Architects become moths to her flame: “How odd! We do not wish to see her go!”

This Side of Heaven reveals that we are alike because of our commonalities and faults, but we are also entirely different. Our experiences and memories, emotions and thoughts are part of who we are. From each perspective, Heaven looks like another song to the next person. Heaven could look like hell, and Heaven could look like Earth. Wong brings every person together through enjoyable and straightforward prose underlined with harrowing truths about humanity and what we all perceive about the afterlife.

How to cite: Chan, Amanda. “Tales from Life and the Afterlife: Cyril Wong’s This Side of Heaven.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 29 Aug. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/08/19/heaven/.

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Amanda Chan

Amanda Chan is a graduate from The Chinese University of Hong Kong with a BA in English. She has a love for creative writing and music. She has self-published two collections of illustrated poetry, including Skin & Thoughts, available online in the Amazon Kindle store.

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