The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a truly incredible book, and is my pick to win the Man Booker Prize this year, and I say that even before reading the last of the six. Luckily, thanks to the amazing miracle-worker that is our interlibrary loan department where I work, I will travel into the future and read the Will Self book before October 16th, even though it doesn't come out in this country until January. Stay tuned for a post about all the nominees and how I'd rank them!
Publisher summary: After studying law at Cambridge and time spent helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals, Yun Ling Teoh, 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.
The story is told in a dual way with some side trips. Part of the story comes from the time shortly after Yun Ling is no longer a POW, and part of the story comes from the time after she has retired from being a judge and comes back to the garden. She has aphasia and is trying to capture as much of her life as she can before she loses her memory. The author does something really interesting with the storytelling in that she will have a conversation in her present-day life in one chapter where a phrase or person will be mentioned, but as the reader you don't discover the details about the person or phrase until she goes back to tell the story. It isn't done in an obvious way, but in the natural way that stories unfold, where a passing mention of something can recall a memory you didn't even know you have access to anymore.
I learned a lot about Malaya/Malaysia from British and Dutch occupation to World War II to the "Malayan Emergency." The philosophy behind Japanese gardening and the Tao Te Ching both weave their way throughout the novel, and the author seems to embrace the aesthetics of both in his writing as well. While Yun Ling is being taught to slow down, breathe, focus; I felt I was being asked to do that as a reader.
I can't pick out specific examples because this is a novel that should be experienced as a whole.
Since I included music with the Thayil book, I feel compelled to share what I listened to as I read the last 200 pages of this novel tonight. Emily, the wife of Magnus, the tea estate owner, listens to the same work every night in order to sleep - the Larghetto from the second Chopin piano concerto, as recorded by Yggdrasil (Quartet). While I can't find a YouTube video of that particular version/group (they do exist), here is Arthur Rubinstein playing with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by André Previn, in 1975. While Chopin isn't the first music I think of when I'm picturing Communists hiding in the jungle, torture camps, and tea plantations, it plays a significant role in the story.