Above Prizes?

This is my review of The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng.

A Chinese Malayan by birth, Judge Teoh Yun Ling retires to the house at Yugiri in the Cameron Highlands and the "Garden of Evening Mists" developed by the enigmatic Nakamura Aritomo, sometime gardener to the Emperor of Japan. Since she has suffered brutal treatment and lost her sister in a Japanese camp during World War 2, one is curious to learn how she managed to form a bond with Aritomo before his death. Shifting back and forth in time, the story is an account of her recollections, revealing some kind of truth layer by layer, as she follows a friend's advice and attempts to capture her memories before the aphasia with which she has been diagnosed destroys her mind, making her a stranger even to herself.

At first, I was put off by the cumbersome opening chapter, the dwelling on small details, the slow pace and the writer's preoccupation with metaphors which, although sometimes striking, too often seem clunky and distracting, even unintentionally comical – "the waterwheel dialled ceaselessly" and so on.

Then I became hooked by Tan Twan Eng's exquisite poetical descriptions of the garden, his enlightening explanations of the principles of Japanese garden design related to a Buddhist/Taoist philosophy of the meaning of life, linked in turn to woodcuts and the art of tattooing, and by his evocation of life in 1950s Malaya with the interaction of different cultural groups, including an introduction to a neglected aspect of colonial history in the rise of communist terrorism in Malaya in the 1950s. The main characters are well-developed, complex and flawed so that you want to know why they behave as they do, what secrets they may be hiding, how a known fate came to befall them.

I began to think that perhaps this should have won "The Man Booker", or that it may be "above prizes" but in the later chapters, where Yun Ling recalls her experiences in the prison camp or recounts Professor Tatsuji's period as a kamikaze pilot, the book loses some of its originality as the pace quickens and the prose becomes more commonplace – a pale imitation of say, "Empire of the Sun".

The final revelations prove a little contrived yet would have satisfied me if the final twist had not seemed a little too implausible – there is an over-reliance on coincidence in this book. Tan Twan Eng seems to have introduced a denouement only to leave it half-knotted, although I suppose this is a point for discussion in book groups.

After a rocky start, I found this novel absorbing, often a page turner, moving blend of unflinching and sentimental, thought-provoking and very informative as regards Malayan culture understood from the inside. It was useful but disruptive to look up various terms, often employed several times before they are explained in the text, if at all, so brief footnotes would have been helpful. I am also left wondering if some of the (to me) overwritten prose may be due to Tan Twan Eng's fluency in a language other than English, in which this style is highly regarded. His style may also reflect a continued focus in Malaysian study of English literature on the work of poets like Shelley (such as "The Cloud" quoted in the novel).

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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