Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twang Eng

Title: The Garden of Evening Mists
Author: Tan Twang Eng

Genre: Fiction (Historical / WWII / Post-WWII / Malaysia / War Crimes / Gardening / PTSD)
Publisher/Publication Date: Myrmidon (2012)
Source: The publisher

Rating: Loved!
Did I finish?: I did -- another one I inhaled.
One-sentence summary: A WWII prison camp survivor comes to terms with her experiences as she reflects on the twenty years following her release, and the unusual journey she took thanks to a Japanese gardener and her South African friends.
Reading Challenges: A-to-Z Reading Challenge, E-books, Historical Fiction,

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's pretty and simple although it does remind me of an academic volume.

I'm reminded of...: Michael Ondaatje

First line: On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan.

Did... I tear up at the end?: YES. In such a good way -- I never wanted this book to end!

Did... I wish there was a glossary?: YES. Eng peppers the story with phrases totally foreign to me, and I guessed or googled the ones I could. Not understanding didn't take away from the story, but I would have loved a glossary to explain or context the words.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy, buy, buy -- beautifully written, engrossing -- hist fic that spans lit fic.

Why did I get this book?: Having so enjoyed Meira Chand's novel set in post-WWII Malaysia, I was eager for this one.

Review: This is an atmospheric novel with what might be one of my favorite heroines ever, a complicated, articulated, damaged-yet-hopeful woman who captivated me from the first page. Beginning in the 1960s or '70s (I'm not entirely sure, the novel is told by Judge Teoh Yun Ling, one of Malaysia's first female Supreme Court Justices. She has retired from the bench, a bit suddenly, and returns to the tea plantation owned by family friends. From then, in a desperate attempt to remember before she forgets, Yun Ling recounts her life after her release from a Japanese internment camp. The sole survivor, with a mangled hand and deep emotional scars, Yun Ling she throws herself into War Crimes work and eventually attends Cambridge University before returning to Malaysia to work. When she finds herself unable to cope with the government's decision to release Japan from financial restitution to victims, Yun Ling escapes to the country in hopes of establishing a memorial garden for her sister.

Obviously, this is a novel about war, but the conflict is beyond just World War II: following Japan's surrender, Malaysia was immediately gripped by a guerrilla war with the Communists, and Yun Ling's close friends are an Afrikaner family from South Africa, survivors of the Boer War. The themes of armed, violent conflict are reflected in every interaction and experience Yun Ling has, for there's no one in her life untouched by war. In an era well before the acknowledgement of PTSD, she -- like everyone else in Malaysia -- shoulders on, trying to find peace in whatever way possible.

Like Meira Chand's novel, A Different Sky, this novel acknowledges the reality of colonialism, xenophobia, and racism that shaped Malaysia's history. Yun Ling has deep seated hatred for the Japanese, yet she has to come to terms with her feelings when she commissions a gifted Japanese gardener to create the memorial garden for her sister.

While Yun Ling was the hook for me, the writing, oh, the writing swept me away. Yun Ling is known for her well written judgements, and her story is told in a clear but pretty way. Such evocative, poetic sentences: "These aged Englishmen had the forlorn air of pages torn from an old and forgotten book." (p13); "...too many incontinent lorries leaking gravel and cement as they made their way to another construction site in the highlands." (p17); "I do not bother to sieve the disdain from my voice." (p22). Despite the prettiness of the writing, the novel still feels restrained in a way, like Yun Ling, and the wealth of plot and angst don't overwhelm the story.

While I'm sure I'm conveying my enthusiasm for this book, I'm hope I'm also conveying the wonderful experience of this layered novel. More than just a historical novel, this is a fantastic character study and examination of a part of the world very unfamiliar to me. I often found myself chewing over this book as I listened to the news about the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, thinking of those survivors, and I'm even more appreciative of this novel. A quiet, lovely book with punch.

25 comments:

  1. I am going to have to get this book right now, from the library or the bookstore! Thanks for your review.

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    1. You will not regret it -- this book is stunning!!

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  2. I think I might be reading this one soon, and after your glowing recommendation of it, it makes me even more eager to get started with it. It sounds like a really emotional story, but not one that is over dramatized which is something that really impresses me. I need to read this when I can! Great review today!

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    1. yes -- it is very understated, but not cold or aloof. I hope you do get around to it -- it took me a little bit of time to really get in to the story, but once I did -- wow. So.good.

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  3. What a great review. I really am so torn about war novels -- I realize how important they are, and yet I have such a hard time dealing with the inhuman way people are able to treat each other. But in the right mood, this sounds like it would be an incredibly rewarding read.

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    1. Col -- I can completely appreciate that. This might be a good novel to dip your toes in to -- while the story explores what happened to the various characters, it's in reminiscences and there's some distance and safety in knowing that the characters survived -- at least, for me, that makes it 'safer', so to speak. Horrible indignities, of course, and quite sad, but the writing in this made it feel less like need-to-die-now and more sad but meditative.

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  4. I just added it to my wish list. Thank you for your detailed review. It sounds like my kind of book!!

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    1. I could have gone on and on but I restrained myself! ;) I hope you get around to reading this one -- so delish!

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  5. I'm so glad that this novel seduced you as it did me. I LOVED it. I cannot say that enough.

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    1. Agreed -- I could so reread it again, right now!

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    2. I felt the same way about this one.

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  6. Audra another awesome review!! I am so looking forward to reading this novel. I read his first one and did not even know a second novel had even been written. Thanks for keeping me abreast of new publications. I heart you!

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    1. Heather, you so made my day! Thank you! I have to get his first book -- this one was so amazing!

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  7. Audra another awesome review!! I am so looking forward to reading this novel. I read his first one and did not even know a second novel had even been written. Thanks for keeping me abreast of new publications. I heart you!

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  8. Audra another awesome review!! I am so looking forward to reading this novel. I read his first one and did not even know a second novel had even been written. Thanks for keeping me abreast of new publications. I heart you!

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    1. It was just marvelous -- I hope you get to read it!

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  10. I'm just finishing 'the Gift of Rain', hopefully in time for the Tan Twan Eng book-signing in KL on Sunday April 1st...and intend to purchase several copies of this one that day--one for me and two for gifts. Thanks for the lovely review.

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    1. I'm so envious you get to see to see him in person!! You're going to love this one -- it's so beautiful.

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  11. Great review! I'm going to look this one up immediately!

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  12. Having just read the review of 'the gift of rain' by the same author, I'm now even more tempted to seek out this authors work. Great review. Thanks

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  13. What a lovely review - sounds like a gorgeous read!

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  14. Sounds like a fantastic book. I'm going to have to borrow Serena's copy for sure!

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  15. I'm reading this book now. I'm so happy to know you enjoyed this book a lot! When I review it on Thursday, I'll be back!

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  16. My review date is scheduled for 9 April :D

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