Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Book Review - The Garden of Evening Mists


 
There is a graceful elegance about Booker Prize shortlisted Tan Twan Eng's prose. It reminds me of a willow that not so much moves with the breeze but flows as one with it. Of course a willow is also used as a cricket bat. Eng's prose is like that, soft and flowing but able to hit a solid six as story and words find symbiotic union.
This is novel that works at and on many levels. Set during the time of the Malyan crisis of 1948 to 1960 it features Judge Teoh a woman who was imprisoned by the Japanese during the Second World War and who lost not only two of her fingers from Japanese brutality but also her sister. This loss regurgitates her rage throughout the remaining years of her life. Now near retirement and with a serious medical condition threating her mind, if not her life, she decides to swallow her hate of the Japanese, enlist the help of renowned former gardener to the Emperor to build her dead sister a garden of remembrance.
Laced with historical references along with prejudice formed after a harrowing occupation the tale reveals how the curled fingers of colonial imperialism clings long after the event. Eng examines not only the hate fuelled by anger but also how demeaning and negative an emotion this truly is.
The words form in a delightful elegy reminding the reader of the art of post impressionism - colours as rich as the characters, yet muted and soft. The flavour of the novel is bitter sweet.  The relationship between Judge Teoh and the Japanese gardener, Aritomo is fraught with tension.
Eng avoids the clichéd mythologizing of the Sensei - student type but still manages to invest a degree of awe. This is tempered with some angst as the gardener is Japanese. He sees Teoh's ruined hand, knows it is his nation’s soldiers who committed the cruel abuse but makes no apology. A seesaw of emotions exists between the two but also a sense of growing respect. 
There is a lack of sentiment but a surcharge of emotion especially in one scene when the Japanese master strokes his students face.  It is a moment set with myriad emotional content not least of all love. This thread is set against the terror attacks of the CT who seek to throw out the British and there unwholesome empire with it.  The tale is woven with time shifts from just after the war to the present day. There is also the mystery of how Judge Teoh survived the prison camp she was interned in when no one else did. And then there is the matter of Anitomno, now Teoh’s lover – is he culpable of war time cruelty too?

The back and forward, from one time period to another acts like a tide, ebbing and flowing, constantly pushing you on, willing you, persuading you to read more. It is a gripping and a moving and more than that, a challenging read. This truly is a must have book.

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