Now time for a reading confession. I read much of Gardens of the Evening Mist by Tan Twan Eng on my Kindle, but I also listened to it on the associated audio file. I put it out to my readers as to whether or not this is allowed to count in my reading tally for 2017. I was roundly accused of cheating by my colleague when I admitted that I had listened to the latter half of the novel whilst out on a solitary walk along the Thames Path. So, does this count? Please give your views!
I love a good audio book. Many an hour was whiled away on long car journeys with the children as we listened first to a cassette with story recordings by many family members, progressing through to Dick King-Smith, Enid Blyton and J K Rowling. Hubby does a lot of commuting and therefore much of his reading is actually listening. But the advent of Kindle and audio synching has opened a whole new world. I am still delighted when the audio knows how far I have read and the Kindle knows how far I have listened...as far as I'm concerned, this is magic!
For this book, the audio really helped. It is a slow read, lyrical and quite soothing, but I found that, against all exercise of my will-power, it often put me to sleep. The audio therefore, was an immersive experience. It enabled me to focus all my attention on the story and gain a lot more reading hours in one go.
The book is beautiful. It is a story told through the creation of a Japanese garden in Malaysia. The designer is dead at the outset of the novel and so the story is woven in retrospect, building the lives of Aritomo and Yun Ling through their past experiences. Aritomo had been gardener to the Emperor but had retreated to Malaysia. Yun Ling and her sister had been victims of the Japanese following their invasion of Malaya in 1941. This little-known war preceded the attack on Pearl Harbour by just a few hours, and I am ashamed to say that I knew nothing of its history at all.
This is one of the beauties of the novel form. It opens fictional worlds, but gives us a wider perspective on real history. Aritomo is a construct, as is Yun Ling and her sister Yun Hong, but the facts of the invasion, the concentration camps and Operation Golden Lily are all historically accurate, giving us a window on the world we have inherited.
The story is deeply complex and opens with Yun Ling (known as Judge Teoh) retiring from the bench to warm accolades from her colleagues. Her legal career began after she escaped the concentration camp, prompted to take a role in the war crimes trials to find out where she had been held prisoner and where her sister had met her death. The whole story is a homage to her sister. Yun Ling goes to the Cameron Highlands to meet Aritomo and ask him to design a Japanese Garden as a memorial to her. The relationships are complex. Her sister had never lost her love of the Japanese style of garden beauty; paths that lead to a particular view, hidden from sight until one reaches the optimum point, a balance of nature and control and punctuated by buried stones that speak simplicity and grace. Years of cruel imprisonment and routine rape had not robbed her of her sense of beauty. Quite simply, the dream of a garden kept her alive.
And so her sister, Yun Ling, spends most of her life dedicated to providing her with a legacy. But it involves close contact with the enemy. Aritomo is a beautifully conceived character. Tan Twan Eng introduces him as an archer, focused and controlled, "He drew back the bowstring...until he reached a point where he seemed to be floating just above the floorboards...Time had stopped: there was no beginning, there was no end." And this eternal force resounds throughout the story. Aritomo never apologises for his country's treatment of Malaya and the prisoners who were taken. He quietly wins Yun Ling's trust as he proves an exacting mentor in the art of Japanese garden design. He seems wise, intense and ephemeral. And it is the latter quality that provides the mystery at the centre of the novel. Is he who he appears to be? He leaves so much more unsaid than stated and his death is as unconventional and controlled as his life.
The story is majestic in its setting of the Majuba tea estate in the Cameron Highlands. The tea
It is a story in which to immerse yourself. Its complexity is beautifully told, but its pace is slow and deliberate, the author holding a mirror to the Japanese art of garden design. This was a satisfying book that opened a new page of history for me, and created characters that have not yet left my consciousness.