The Garden of Evening Mists
A Novel by Tan Twan Eng
The day the Booker long list was released, I immediately started looking up the titles and reading the synopsis of each book in order to pick out my 3 books for the BookerMarks project. I knew I would chose Bringing Up the Bodies as I had really enjoyed Wolf Hall. My surprise in the list was The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. Not only did the title grab my attention, but the story seemed so intriguing.
Yung Lin Toah, a former prisoner of a Japanese work camp during World War II, retires to Malaya, her home for a short period several years after escaping the work camp. We discover early on that Yung Lin was the only survivor of the Japanese work camp, where she and her sister day dreamed of creating their own Japanese gardens as a way to escape the torture they were forced to bear. In memory of her sister, Yung Lin embarks to find a way to have a Japanese garden created for her. Conveniently located near the tea plantation of a family friend, sits the only Japanese garden in Malaya, Yugiri. Interestingly Yugiri was designed and is maintained by Aritomo, a former gardener to the Emperor of Japan.
First and foremost, this is a beautifully written book. Tan Twan Eng describes in intricate detail using all of the senses many of the physical attributes of the garden and the Malayan surroundings. There is one passage detailing a heron landing near the garden pond in the mist. I will remember this passage every time I see a heron, especially when riding my bike along the Reservoir in the rain. Eng is able to make me taste the tea, feel the pain of the tattoo, smell the dirt, hear the swallows and see the intricate surroundings. His passages are almost poetic they are so beautiful.
However, Eng was never able to allow me to connect with the characters. Yung Lin was and her imprisonment were so superficial. I am sure Eng was not writing the book to expose the Japanese as sadistically cruel captors, but he really glossed over the detail of the travesties that occurred in these war time work camps. Not that I would want to re-read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken again. I was never able to connect to Aritomo. One could see that Yung Lin grew very quickly to care for the man even though he was Japanese and she supposedly hated the “Japs”. None of the other minor characters played a large enough plot to really care about either. I would have liked to have seen Fredrick developed more, but the reader knew his feelings even if Yung Lin did not.
The foreshadowing in the book was too precise. It was like having one’s hand held down the path to the end of the book. Nothing was left for the reader to figure out. I could tell you where the gold and lost camp happened to be half way through the book.
I am giving the book a 4 although 3.5 may be more accurate. For literary style and its beautiful descriptions, it does deserve a 5. For lack of intriguing plot and characters a 3 which would tie it with Harold Frye in my Booker tally. Hmmm, how do you set up a tie breaker? Do you give a book that you really enjoyed without much literary style the edge or will the beautifully and artfully written book win out? Let’s wait until I have read Bringing up the Bodies to make any more decisions…