I thought it would never end, the lugubrious tale of torture and regret that is The Garden of Evening Mists. I picked it up from the Mann Booker short list because it is set in a time and place one doesn’t read about much–post WWII Malaysia. Having in my rather brief travels to China and Thailand as well as in my classroom observations in Berkeley Adult School ESL classes, observed the deep and abiding hostility toward the Japanese still festering throughout the people of North and Southeast Asia, I was interested as well in the perspective of someone whose world had experienced the brutality of Hirohito”s empire.
I will say that, objectively speaking, Tan Twan Eng Is a fine writer, that his Judge Teoh (a Chinese Malaysian) Is a finely-wrought character, and that the notion of this former prisoner writing a memoir and completing a garden in honor of her concentration-camp-murdered sister is a first rate idea for a novel. Especially when her memoir is a race against the neurological disease that will rob her of the ability to write or speak or remember. Even moreso when the garden work is carried out under the tutelage of a Japanese, one who (we eventually learn) may have been complicit in her incarceration.
But, my how the narrator’s voice drones on and on. Even the few dramatic moments seem somehow monochromatic in sound and texture as well as color, if the fault is in me–probably is, since all these Booker people thought so highly of this work– mea culpa, but suffer me no more of Mr. Eng.