The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng's eagerly awaited second novel like his first (The Gift of Rain, published 2007 and long-listed for the 2007 Man Booker Prize) spans Malaysian eras, from Colonial times to the present day. The Garden of Evening Mists has been shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize.
The curious and not immediately attractive lead character Teoh Yun Ling, a lawyer and a former prisoner of war in a Japanese camp, unfolds her life-story amidst the tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands. After her imprisonment Teoh becomes an apprentice to the Japanese gardener Nakamura Aritomo, they collaborate to create a memorial garden for Teoh's sister.
The motive for setting pen to paper is touchingly divulged as the reader is entrusted early on with the news that Teoh has a degenerative neurological condition that inevitably will lead to aphasia and dementia. Poignantly, the theme of memories and forgetfulness is weaved into the plot.
The Colonial backdrop and characters add a charm, reminiscent of an Asian "Out of Africa." The cultural melting pot of characters - South African, Chinese, Japanese and Malaysian - enriches the plot, resulting in beautiful cultural interludes and sub-stories. The Chinese fable of "The Ten Suns" told by Magnus's wife Emily to a group of children at the Chinese Lantern or Mooncake festival is simply magical.
The relationships that Teoh has with men in the novel is unique, intermittently challenging the reader. Teoh's character, damaged by her time as a prisoner of war, leaves the reader at times questioning her capacity to freely consent in situations of intimacy.
Having lived in Malaysia the descriptions of the tea plantations, the jungle and the towns are evocative and precise. It's scenery is grand and described in a Murakamiesque manner. The formality of Yugiri, the Japanese memorial garden, is contrasted with a chaotic jungle riddled with "communists terrorists" and indigenous Malaysians living in their longhouses.
The language is as lush as the landscape he seeks to describe. His prose is punctuated with clever imagery; in reuniting with Teoh, Eng brilliantly describes Frederick's wry reaction "A smile skims across his face, capsizing an instant later."
Though on the whole the descriptive narrative was attractive, at times more concision might have saved it from becoming overwrought, as in my view it was, and rather frustratingly holding back what was otherwise a compelling and unique story.
In my view, the sophistication of the language at times did not marry with the plot structure and development. Before the story of the camp is revealed in full, the numerous references to Teoh's time as a prisoner felt slightly amateurish. This was surprising given the excellence Eng achieves in other aspects of the book.
This is undoubtedly a captivating book, with intriguing characters, an elegant plot and beautiful scenery. Whether it will, or indeed should, win the highly acclaimed Man Booker Prize on Tuesday is at large.