The Late Review: “The Garden of Evening Mists”, by Tan Twan Eng

This is a bit awkward, for two reasons. First of all, I read this book (which – full disclosure – was given to me by Myrmidon) ages ago, and I really should have got around to reviewing it before now. However, I have spent most of the last few months either preparing to move house, moving house or trying to reconstruct my life following a house move, so I hope that I won’t be judged too harshly. Anyway, now that life is returning to something approaching normality, I intend to get my act together with this blog too. This isn’t the only book that’s waiting to be reviewed, after all.

The second reason for awkwardness is that while I’ve been dithering, this book has – like Tan Twan Eng’s previous book, of which more anon – gone and got itself onto the Booker longlist. Which is all fine and dandy, except for the fact that my lovely publishers, Salt – for the first time ever – also have a book on that list, Alison Moore’s “The Lighthouse”. I’ve been a fan of Alison Moore ever since I read her brilliantly atmospheric Nightjar chapbook, “When The Door Closed, It Was Dark” (which subsequently also appeared in Salt’s “Best of British Short Stories 2011”), although I unaccountably managed to pass over not one but two of her stories when I was judging (anonymously, of course) the recent The New Writer Prose competition. These things happen (there were, after all, a lot of excellent stories vying for my attention – and I do incidentally recommend that you grab yourself a copy of the most recent edition of The New Writer, where all the best stories and poems are reproduced in all their glory), but it does somewhat compound my slight feeling of disloyalty at featuring a rival book on my blog.

Anyway, enough of all that. What about Tan Twan Eng?

I first came across his work when he came to talk to our writers’ circle round about the time of his first book, “The Gift of Rain”. I bought a copy and was absolutely blown away by it. Here’s a post I wrote about it for the circle’s blog. The only thing that perhaps let the book down was an interlude set in the Malaysian jungle towards the end of the book that didn’t quite work for me. However, that niggle aside, it’s an remarkable book – extraordinary for a debut – and one that still lingers on in the memory five years on. I’m still entranced by those fireflies.

Ever since then I’ve been wondering when he was going to produce a follow-up, so I was really excited when I received this, although I must confess I opened it with some trepidation as to whether he’d still got it. The good news is that he most definitely has. This is another tale with a morally ambiguous protagonist, Teoh Yun Ling, a Malaysian lawyer who was somehow the sole survivor of a brutal Japanese prisoner of war camp. Her survival is given extra poignancy by the fact that her elder sister was one of the ones who perished in the same camp, and Yun Ling is determined to honour her memory by designing a Japanese garden for her. To this end she becomes an apprentice to the mysterious Nakamura Aritomo, who was once the gardener to the Emperor of Japan but is now living in exile in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. This is how she ends up working in the Garden of Evening Mists of the title.

Like “The Gift of Rain”, the action takes place in different time periods, and this time there are three: the second world war, the time of the Malayan Emergency of the 1960s and the present day. There is a rich and varied cast of characters and a complex storyline that links them all together. As with his first book, there is a wonderful sense of place and a sensuous use of language, and in many ways it is a more ambitious book as well as being more consistently plotted. My only concern is that – perhaps because of the complexity and subtlety of the plot – it doesn’t seem to be lingering on in the memory as much as “The Gift of Rain”. But perhaps that’s my fault, and not the author’s. It’s certainly a worthy contender for the Booker and – setting other considerations aside – it would be really cool to see him go one stage further this time.

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