I get why this was nominated for the Booker; I also get why it didn’t win. Not that winning the Booker is any kind of indisputable endorsement that a novel is truly first rate and destined to become a classic – I get why The Luminaries was nominated but I’ll never get why it won (unless the competition that year was uniformly ordinary) and the same is true for me of half a dozen past winners. There was so much that was good about this novel and yet while I consistently enjoyed it I never quite loved it. I’m still trying to put my finger on why. Maybe it’s because there’s just a bit too much going on? Maybe because the relentlessly sumptuous prose was sometimes decorative when it might have been more revealing? I remember one indicative sentence when a man’s touch on a woman’s back was described as like a dragonfly settling on a leaf. It’s a picturesque image but essentially meaningless if you stop and think about it. In what way is a woman’s back like a leaf? And how is the touch of a dragonfly different from say that of a mosquito? Sometimes the prose could be just a bit too self-consciously pretty.
The Garden of Evening Mists is essentially a love story which incorporates an awful lot of fascinating historical information about Malaya where its set and especially regarding the Japanese invasion of that country during WW2. The narrator is Supreme Court judge Teoh Yun Ling, daughter of a prosperous Chinese Malaysian family, and the sole survivor of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. One of the mysteries at the heart of the novel is why she was the lone survivor. After the war she becomes a merciless prosecutor of war criminals – her experiences at the camp have left her loathing everything Japanese. Except there’s a problem. Her sister who died in the camp harboured an ambition to build a garden after visiting the gardens of Kyoto. When Yun Ling discovers the Japanese Emperor’s former gardener, Aritomo is living in Malaya and has built a garden there she asks him to build her a garden in memory of her dead sister.
Yun Ling and Aritomo, the two central characters, are both morally ambivalent, both hiding shaming secrets, and at times outright unlikeable, which makes them fascinating. They are also somewhat humourless which was a shame. Aritomo never quite came alive for me. It felt like he was a character who has featured in other books – the enigmatic wise solitary ageing artist who has an answer for everything but reserves his wisdom for one entitled visitor. He’s also a kind of conduit of many of the more mystical facets of Japanese culture – archery, the tea ceremony, woodcuts, tattooing, Zen philosophy. It’s his task in the novel to redeem the Japanese in the eyes of the harsh and unforgiving Yun Ling.
One of the novel’s central themes is the precarious relationship between remembering and forgetting. This is the novel’s greatest triumph. There’s a lovely scene where Aritomo takes Yun Ling to a remote ruined temple which a handful of nuns preserve. The novel is consistently stressing the importance of preserving memory, albeit in unorthodox ways. The garden itself is a kind of spirit and memory map. It’s also an exciting novel. The presence in the country of rebel communist bands means safety can never be taken for granted. It works well as a mystery novel too. The mysteries building in intensity and artfully revealed at the opportune moments. Basically, there’s an awful lot to like about The Garden of Evening Mists and Tan Twan Eng is a hugely accomplished and fascinating writer who I will definitely read again. In fact I liked it better than The Luminaries so perhaps, after all, I don’t get why it didn’t win the Booker.