I’m reading through all six of the Booker Prize shortlisted novels – attempting to finish before the winner is announced, although given the size of the books that is looking unlikely at the moment! Here’s the first of my reviews, for Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists.
It’s Malaya, 1949. After studying law at Cambridge and time spent helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals, Teoh Yun Ling – herself the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp – seeks solace among the jungle fringed plantations of Northern Malaya where she grew up as a child.
There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in Kuala Lumpur, in memory of her sister who died in the camp.
Aritomo refuses, but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice ‘until the monsoon comes’. Then she can design a garden for herself. As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to her sensei and his art while, outside the garden, the threat of murder and kidnapping from the guerrillas of the jungle hinterland increases with each passing day.
But who is Nakamura Aritomo and how did he come to be exiled from his homeland?
And is Yun Ling’s survival of the Japanese camp somehow connected to Aritomo and the Garden of Evening Mists?
Once I got into it though, I did really enjoy it. I knew very little about Japan’s role in the second world war, and almost nothing about how people in (at the time) British colonies like Malaya (now Malaysia) were affected. I had never even heard of the Malayan Emergency (yes, I had to Google it!) that forms the backdrop to most of the book. So, I finished reading this feeling like I’d learned something – which isn’t the primary purpose of fiction, to my mind, but it is a welcome bonus!
The book is incredibly slow-paced, but intricately-plotted. So, although the pace never really picks up, I got more absorbed in it the further I read, as more details came to light and the mystery at the heart of the story was gradually revealed. This might not appeal to people who like their fiction a bit more immediate, but I was impressed by the writer’s attention to detail. This is a book that rewards careful reading: incidental details from early on are all eventually worked in and only appear important quite late in the text.
The Garden of Evening Mists is narrated in the first person by Teoh Yun Ling, who begins the book as a retired judge, looking back at her earlier years. We learn that she has been diagnosed with a form of aphasia, and will soon lose the ability to read, write or even understand speech. Knowing that she has limited time in which to record her memories, she begins writing down what she recalls of her time as Aritomo’s apprentice. The narrative switches between her written recollections, and the present day in which she is managing Aritomo’s estate, all of which was left to her on his death and working with a Japanese academic, Professor Yoshikawa Tatsuji, who wants to publish a book of the gardener’s woodblock prints. The two narratives weave together to gradually reveal the truth of Yun Ling and Aritomo’s combined pasts.
Memory and its reliability – or otherwise – is a strong theme of the book. It opens with a quote about the goddess Mnemosyne – goddess of memory – and her twin sister – the goddess of forgetting; who’s name itself has been forgotten – these figures form a repeating motif throughout. The competing themes of memory and forgetting are strongly embodied in the character of Yun Ling: battling to record her memories while she is still capable of doing so; she has to force herself to remember things she has spent years trying to forget. Some things have faded with time while others seem to have become clearer; and the things she learns from Tatsuji, the Japanese researcher, cause her to question her own memories.
The one area that this book fell a bit flat for me was in the character of Yun Ling. Although it is narrated from her point of view, I never really felt like we got a good sense of who she actually was. Her voice is oddly personality-free: to the point where some of her actions seemed really jarring, particularly with regards to her relationships with other characters, as I just couldn’t tell from her narration how she actually felt about some of the other characters. It’s possible this is deliberate: Yun Ling is presented as being severely traumatised from her time in the Japanese internment camp, so this guardedness could be a manifestation of her PTSD. Whether deliberate or not, the flatness of her character made her very difficult to empathise with.
Overall I enjoyed this, although if I hadn’t been reading it for the Booker challenge I’d probably have given up halfway through. It’s very slow, and takes a long time to get going, but ultimately I thought it was worth sticking with. Could it win? Maybe – it’s hard to say without having read any of the others yet – but I have to say, I’ll be disappointed if this is the strongest book on the shortlist.