Five words from the blurb: Malaya, Japanese, war, gardener, tattoo
The Garden of Evening Mists is set in a remote region of Northern Malaya. It is here that Yun Ling Teoh, the sole survivor of a Japanese concentration camp, discovers a Japanese garden. She meets the skilled craftsman who created it, but because the tranquility of the garden is in stark contrast to the horrific way she was treated by the Japanese during the war her relationship with him is difficult and emotional. As the book progresses the story becomes more complex; involving escalating violence within the country, mysterious tattoos and Yun Ling’s terrible experiences in the concentration camp.
I’m not a fan of gardening so this book didn’t appeal to me initially, but the more I read, the more I fell under its spell. By the end I was transfixed and impressed by the depth and complexity of the narrative. I was also surprised by the way the author made me interested in both the construction of Japanese gardens and horimono tattoos – it takes a skilled author to bring such diverse topics to life.
The descriptive passages in the book were wonderful – they described the Malayan jungle and the Japanese garden beautifully. Unfortunately the dialogue didn’t seem to be of the same high standard – I found it clunky and irritating. The following passage is a good example of the way dialogue ruined a good descriptive passage:
As I made my way further into the book the dialogue became less of a problem. I can’t decide whether this is because I got used to it and so it began to feel natural, or because the plot became more gripping and so I could overlook any problems I had.
I wasn’t very familiar with the history of Malaya before starting this book, but the historical events were seamlessly blended into the plot and I didn’t find my lack of previous knowledge to be a hindrance. It was wonderful to read such a culturally rich book and I loved learning little snippets of information about both Malaya and Japan.
The Garden of Evening Mists is a fantastic novel. It is beautifully structured, packed with complex characters, and contains a haunting narrative that introduces the reader to a period of history that is often overlooked. I hope it wins the Booker Prize next week.
(I nearly gave it 4.5 stars and can see that my appreciation of it may grow with time)
The thoughts of other bloggers:
The over-arching sense of place spans the whole book beautifully – there were times I felt I could close my eyes and see the whole estate laid out before me. Alex in Leeds
The Japanese-style garden of the title, located in a mountainous region of Malaysia, displays characteristics of organization, order, and beauty that the author mirrors in his construction of the text: absences, internal borrowings, sudden revelations through carefully revealed scenes, and many other attributes of artful design. Read, Ramble
Although this book is reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day I thought Tan brought something extra to the piece. He brought more culture, more plotting. JoV’s Book Pyramid