Things are going pretty well for 33-year-old Ho Ching-cheng: he lives in Taipei with the love of his life, Hsu Ching-chih, and together they support each other’s dreams of becoming a bestselling author (him) and a renowned actress (her). Then, just as Hsu’s acting career is finally coming together, disaster strikes. On their way home with his parents after one of her shows, their car is hit by a drunk driver, killing Hsu and Ho’s mother. The drunk driver only has minor injuries and flees before the police arrive which is a source of deep resentment for Ho. He starts to channel his anger into writing and publishes a series of stories online about a fictionalized version of Hsu and his mother who travel the world and have adventures. The stories gain a devoted following, then one day he receives a strange message from the director of an underground organization called Dark Fern: Come and help us rewrite people’s lives.
Based out of a small izakaya, Dark Fern operates at the shadowy perimeters of the law to help people replicate the lives of those they envy. In exchange for everything that they own, clients take a piece of paper outlining their new life to the attic where it is reset by the Director. Ho joins the team and begins to help people rewrite their lives, with the novel focusing on three main cases. The first is a young woman with a disability whose doctor husband is always too busy with work, but after she replicates the life of an able-bodied friend, she realizes the various ways she was actually fortunate before and returns to her original life. The second is a middle-aged teacher who envies someone that bullied him in school but doesn’t realize the other man’s wife has clinical depression, so the teacher vows to make the best of his own life instead. The last case is Hsu’s former best friend who’d always envied her and inadvertently caused the car accident. As the ultimate revenge, Ho offers her the chance to copy Hsu’s life even though she will die. However, when they come down from the attic and it’s revealed that Ho has been the Director all along, he realizes he doesn’t want to hurt her and instead helps her live the life she always wanted.
This is a fast-paced novel with a lot of action and intrigue that keeps the reader emotionally invested all the way to the final page. It’s told from the perspective of Ho and you get a good sense of his emotions as the events of the novel unfold, especially the empathy he feels towards the characters in each of the cases that Dark Fern takes on. The parallel grief that he and his father go through from having both lost their partners but also having each lost another family member at the same time was well portrayed. It captured the similarities and differences between their experiences and the impact that their respective grief had on each other. The optimistic nature of the stories he writes about Hsu and his mother sets up a tonal balancing act where people are still able to find moments of hopefulness even in the hardest periods of life, and the author explores different variations of this as the story takes a series of interesting turns.
One of the other highlights of the novel is the varied cast of characters. Aside from the Director, whose true identity is only revealed at the end of the novel, the team at Dark Fern is comprised of an interesting mix of personalities that makes them an easy team to root for. In a clever riff on the nature of their work, they’re each given a job title that corresponds with a role in a typical production crew. For example, Wu Ting-kang is the producer as he’s the one who secures the funds from the clients and is also in charge of managing the izakaya. You definitely wouldn’t want to double-cross him but most of the time you’ll find him cooking up a storm in the kitchen and making sure everything runs smoothly. There’s also the art director, Hui, a petite woman in her late twenties with a wicked sense of humor who looks like a university student. She designs the key scenes for the clients’ new lives and makes sure the changes go undetected by the police. Lastly, there’s Kevin, a freshman who dropped out of MIT and has his own complicated life choices to make as his father keeps trying to get him to move back to the US. He’s the cameraman who manages the logistics of the scenes that Hui designs. Some of the book’s most enjoyable moments happen when the team are just hanging out together at the izakaya during the downtime between cases.
The three main subplots all build on each other before eventually combining with the main plot. The young woman with the disability is forced to confront the reality of copying her able-bodied best friend’s life when she realizes that the friend’s fate was always to die young from cancer. This embodies one of the main messages of the novel: that in life you have to take the rough with the smooth and remember that you never truly know what’s around the corner. The author builds on this in the next story, where the middle-aged teacher has envied the colleague who bullied him when they were children without realizing that the former bully is going through his own emotional turmoil. This realization makes him shift his whole attitude towards life and finally start the career in videomaking that he’d always been too scared to pursue. It’s a reminder that sometimes the biggest thing holding us back is ourselves. As for Hsu’s former friend, she realizes the sheer damage that her envy has caused but she also helps Ho understand that he needs to let go of the resentment that’s fueled him and start forging a new path of his own.
It’s a satisfying ending with a Fight Club-style twist that maintains a high level of intrigue right to the end. Even though it deals with some heavy themes including grief, envy and discrimination, the narrative tone keeps the novel feeling relatively light. It doesn’t get caught up in the details of the speculative elements, with the sci-fi mostly there as a catalyst to ask broader questions about fate and the choices we make in life. The premise is reminiscent of Recursion by Blake Crouch but with an emphasis on the individual decisions themselves rather than their part in a huge macro conspiracy. Tonally, the novel has a lot in common with The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, albeit with more of a crime fiction bent. The Taiwan Ministry of Culture selected it as a recommended book for school students and I think the straight-forward language gives it a lot of crossover appeal for both YA and adult contemporary fiction. Overall, it’s an uplifting novel with a fast-paced plot, engaging characters and a gratifying conclusion that ties everything together.