Thoughts on Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists

The Garden of Evening Mists

As promised in my comments on Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain, I have now completed his The Garden of Evening Mists. How could I resist a story set in a Cameron Highlands tea plantation? As usual, this is not a formal review, just some observations. If, like me, you prefer to know little about a book before diving in, you might do best to leave this post until after you’ve had a go at it yourself. Yes, that is a recommendation – read it – for both story and art. This one is going to stick with me for a long time.

Now to the observations:

Overall, I enjoyed The Garden of Evening Mists much more than The Gift of Rain. Having read The Gift of Rain, my expectations were more in line with Mr. Eng’s work. I knew what I was getting into so I was more prepared to appreciate it and chose to read it when I was ready for it. The first half of the book is slow going but, in the second half, the layers build towards a complexity which begins to pay off.

Language – Mr. Eng’s use of poetic speech is so dense that it sometimes overwhelms the writing. These are from the first page:

  • He had left his home on the rim of the sunrise..
  • …that rain-scratched morning…
  • Memories…like shards of ice fracturing off an arctic shelf. In sleep, these broken floes drift towards the morning light of remembrance.
  • The murmurings of the house…

Most of Mr. Eng’s figurative language is stunning and seamless. It supports the dream-like atmosphere, the story of muddled memories and the gradual revelations as truth emerges. There is the occasional clunker that feels forced, drawing attention to the language rather than keeping you in the story world. But if you want to see how metaphorical writing is done, how to steep your reader’s entire sensory system into another world, I highly recommend studying Mr. Eng’s work.

Structure – The story is framed in 1st person present tense narration over a two-week period, but the bulk of the book is in 1st person past tense as the narrator reveals prior events in her life. In fact, there are three major time periods in the book: the narrator’s experience during WWII, her experiences after the war as she met and worked with her Japanese gardener/mentor, and the present as she copes with her new circumstances – all the while discovering new information about her past.

The change of tense is helpful to keep the present and past time periods separated, but I still found it challenging to know which period I was in because the locations and characters overlap. I often had to stop and remind myself of what period I was reading in order to keep things straight in my head.

There are stories within stories which add to the mystery but also contribute to the complexity of the text. By the end of the book the story is so layered I had to stop many times and think about what each new piece of information meant to the narrative; how it fit into the larger story. Every bit is important and comes together in the end but I now feel the need to go back to the beginning and at least skim through the book again in order to fully appreciate each part of the puzzle – the way you might want to re-watch a mystery movie to make sense of how each clue plays a part in the whole.

Story – I found The Garden of Evening Mists more palatable than The Gift of Rain on several levels:

  • Personal interest: Japanese gardens, archery, art & tea are much more appealing to me as a context than Japanese martial arts. I also enjoyed the smattering of Malaysian language throughout the text since I have retained at least that much of my Bahasa Indonesia reading skills. Since I know the words, I didn’t need the context or the clarifications provided by Mr. Eng but I doubt anyone would be confused by them. He also scatters some Dutch vocabulary throughout – and I don’t know a word of it but had no problem making sense of them in context. I think this book would be a good example of how non-English words can flavor a text without confusing or irritating the reader.
  • Characters: I still long for a story from the ethnic Malay experience, but this book felt more rooted in the land than The Gift of Rain. However, that book’s main character was half Straits Chinese and half English and, I believe, a large part of his vulnerability to the Japanese mentor was his own rootlessness. I had a difficult time being sympathetic to the main character in The Gift of Rain because I found his manipulative Japanese mentor repulsive. In The Garden of Evening Mists, I found all of the characters interesting and sympathetic even when I was led to conclude they were not all perfectly honorable.

Similarities to The Gift of Rain Both stories revolve around an enigmatic Japanese master of something (martial arts, gardening, art) and their devastating allure to a young, vulnerable Malaya national within the context or fallout of the brutal Japanese invasion of Malaya during WWII. I can’t help but wonder what it is that draws Mr. Eng to elevate Japanese culture to this level of mystique within the hearts of the very people who were so abused by the Japanese atrocities. He seems fixated on the irony that the same culture, same individuals even, could produce such beauty while also committing such horrors on their fellow man.

But maybe that’s the point. What culture is not capable of great beauty and great savagery?

You can see reviews of The Garden of Evening Mist here and here.

Why I don’t write starred reviews here.

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Nine More!

As promised, I reviewed the Historical Novel Society‘s most recent reviews of new and upcoming historical fiction set in out of the way places. The following reviews are available online:

The Year of the Horsetails – R.F. Tapsell – Eastern Europe – Early Middle Ages

When the Jungle is Silent – James Boschert – Malaysia – 1964

Island of the White Rose – R. Ira Harris – Cuba – 1958

Equilateral – Ken Kalfus – Egypt – Victorian

Sword & Scimitar – Simon Scarrow – Malta – 1565

Trees without Wind – Li Rui, (John Balcom – trans.), China, 1966-76

The Twelfth Department – William Ryan – Moscow – 1930s

From the Mouth of the Whale – Sjon, Victoria Cribb (trans.) – Iceland – 17th century

The Wayward Moon – Janice Weizman – Galilee, 894 AD

So, have a look and add to your teetering stack of TBR.

28 New Long Ago & Far Away Reading Options

Yesterday I received the latest edition of the Historical Novel Review – the quarterly magazine published by the Historical Novel Society. I am always anxious to see the reviews of new historical fiction and note which ones need to be added to my To Be Read list. In this round, I found 28 books under the printed reviews which fit our Long Ago & Far Away focus. For easy reference I am posting a list of those books here.

Three books under “Biblical” fit LAFA’s (Long Ago & Far Away) loose parameters, but since this period/location gets a lot of attention, I will skip them for this compilation. There are seven in the “Classical” category, six of which take place in either Rome or Greece, again, not really off the beaten path. I did include one from the classical period because it takes place in Turkey – a bit out of the way. I’m also skipping crusader stories since the context is already popular. I have included one from that period due to it’s Spanish setting being less familiar.

The list:

The Last King of Lydia – Tim Leach – Lydia (in present day Turkey) – 6th century BC

1200 year gap!

The Secret History – Stephanie Thornton – Byzantium – 6th century AD

600 year gap!

The Corpse Reader – Antonio Garrido (trans. Thomas Bunstead) – China – 13th century

Emeralds of The Alhambra – John D. Cressler – Granada – 14th century

200 year gap!

Claws of the Cat – Susan Spann – Japan – 16th century

200 year gap. (Is this like contractions?)

The Pagoda Tree – Claire Scobie – India – 18th century

The Devil is White – William Palmer – Africa – 18th Century

And now, the 19th century:

The Corsair – Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud (trans. Amira Noweira) – Bombay, Oman, Iraq and China – 19th century

The Scarlet Thief – Paul Fraser Collard – Crimea – 19th century

Kiku’s Prayer – Shusaku Endo (trans. Van C. Gessel) – Japan – 19th century

The Prisoner of Paradise – Romesh Guneskera – Mauritius – 19th century

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent – Iceland – 19th Century

The Collector of Lost Things – Jeremy Page – Arctic – 19th century

The Family Mansion – Anthony C. Winkler – Jamaica – 19th century

20th Century:

Blood Tango – Annamaria Alfieri – Argentina – 1945

The Roving Tree – Elsie Augustave – Haiti/Zaire – 1950s

Mystery in Malakand – Susanna Bell – Peshawar/Northwest Frontier/British India – 1920

Midnight in St. Petersburg – Vanora Bennett – Revolutionary Russia

Shadows on the Nile – Kate Furnivall – Egypt – 1932

The Gunners of Shenyang – Yu Jihui – China – 1960s

The Man From Berlin – Luke McCallin – Yugoslavia – 1943

The Bride Box – Michael Pearce – Egypt – 1913

The Child Thief – Dan Smith – Unkraine – 1930

Ben Barka Lane – Mahmoud Saeed (trans. Kay Heikkinen) Morroco – 1964 (originally published in Arabic in 1970, so fits only the loosest definition of historical fiction but it is definitely LAFA to most of us.

A Question of Honor – Charles Todd – India/England/France – early 1900s

Multi-period:

Lighthouse Bay – Kimberley Freeman – Australia

The Age of Ice – J.M. Sidorova – Russia

Paranormal/Fantasy:

The Ghost Bride – Yangze Choo – Malaysia

Exciting reading ahead! Which of these interest you the most?

There are additional reviews online (294 in total!). I will peruse those as soon as I am able. There are also YA and Children’s books reviewed both in the printed mag and online. If someone else would like to glean LAFA books from these before I have the chance, just let me know and we’ll get them posted.

Hooked on History – Part II

Roman Main Street

Roman Main Street – Volubilis, Morocco – Copyright Lausanne Davis Carpenter

It happened in an instant. I’d read the last page of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, closed the book and saw this kid running through ancient streets. Who was he?

The fact of real people living their lives through cataclysmic events overwhelmed me. How do they do it? How did they do it? Who were they?

It has long baffled me that, in the midst of upheaval, famine, war, and illness, people go on. They cope. They live their lives. Somehow. Whether the British during the Blitz or a nameless dancing boy escaped from a sinking ship, people adjust and do what life requires.

I was compelled to examine this resilience; to imagine their stories. My thoughts flashed to the times and places that fascinate me most – Late Antique Syria and points further east – and I knew I had tales to tell.

That was in 1993.

My life moved on. From time to time I thought about that kid who wouldn’t completely go away. I now knew who he was and what he was doing but I was busy. I left London for the US, got married, then left the US for Indonesia. While on a much needed vacation in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, the plot spun out before me over the course of three days. But I still thought I’d never really write it. I was though compiling reference materials as I could. All that time the resources were few and expensive. I had to request an out-of-print Amazon search for the book The Early Islamic Conquests by Fred Donner. It was nearly 2 years before I received a notice that they had found it. I paid $80.00 for it in 2001. (It looks like it’s playing hard to get again.)

Life carried on. I returned to the US in 2002, ran a decorative painting/murals business for eight years and designed scenery and lighting for several professional theatre companies. In 2010, we moved to Florida and I started yet another career – this time in a cubical!

About eighteen months ago my work schedule became so crazy that my only possible creative time was the wee hours of the morning. I wasn’t going to make it to my downtown art studio at 5am, so I decided it was time to write. The story is finally under way.

What strikes me now is how difficult it would have been to write any of my planned stories back in the early 1990s. There was no WWW. And, few of my primary reference books were published in 1993, most were written much later. If I could have learned to read Arabic, Greek, Latin and Aramaic while camping out at SOAS, I might have had a chance. So, although I’ve taken the long way to it, it’s just as well.

I would love to hear the research methods of others writing about obscure times and places. Do you think you could have tackled your current projects in the pre-Internet world?

Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

And it seems we’re not the only ones excited about historical fiction placed outside the normal geography. This year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction went to The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. The story is set in post WWII Cameron Highlands, Malaysia.

Mr Eng was born in Penang, Malaysia and splits his time between Kuala Lumpur and Cape Town, South Africa. His debut novel The Gift of Rain was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The Garden of Evening Mists was shortlisted for the same. That’s an impressive start to a writing career.

Score a major victory for books written of Long Ago and Far Away!

And this one just leapt to the top of my To Be Read pile. I spent four years right across the Malacca Straits in Sumatra. In fact, the outline of my novel was birthed while on a much needed vacation in the Cameron Highlands. I can’t wait to read this!