Release Date: February 11th, 2012
Genre: Historical, Cultural Fiction
Source: I received a PDF copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
It’s Malaya, 1949. After studying law at Cambridge and time spent helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals, Yun Ling Teoh, herself the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle-fringed plantations of Northern Malaya where she grew up as a child. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in Kuala Lumpur, in memory of her sister who died in the camp. Aritomo refuses, but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice ‘until the monsoon comes’. Then she can design a garden for herself. As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to her sensei and his art while, outside the garden, the threat of murder and kidnapping from the guerrillas of the jungle hinterland increases with each passing day. But the Garden of Evening Mists is also a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? Why is it that Yun Ling’s friend and host Magnus Praetorius, seems to almost immune from the depredations of the Communists? What is the legend of ‘Yamashita’s Gold’ and does it have any basis in fact? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all?
Tough review incoming! I don’t even know where to start. There were a lot of things I liked about The Garden of Evening Mists, but there were also some things that really annoyed me. If this review seems a little disjointed as you read it, that’s because it is. I had a tough time organizing my thoughts into any rhyme or reason. So let’s get started. I usually start with things I liked, this time let’s get the ugly out of the way first.
For the most part, I liked the writing. I thought it was poetic, dreamy, and subtle. It captured the somber tone of the book well. But, but…and this may just be me, but I cannot stand when authors overuse participle phrases. And this author used them more than necessary and in places where they didn’t belong. It yanks you right out of the narrative and ruins the magic. For you non-editor folks who are wondering what a participial phrase is, here is an example:
Waiting near the bus stop, John noticed that his wallet was missing.
And I’m sorry, but if you pop that into the narrative anywhere, it will jolt you right out of it. It’s a huge sign of amateurish writing when they are overused. In my experiences, there are places where participial phrases are needed and totally work. But they should be used conservatively. And the sign of a talented writer is knowing when and when not to use them. A good editor should have caught these issues and fixed them.
Next, the ending. I can’t talk too much about it without spoiling anything, but just know that I felt there were a lot of loose ends that weren’t tied up. I don’t mind when a book ends bittersweetly, but it kind of just…stopped. And left you wondering. In a bad way. Not something I care for, and if I had known it would have ended that way, I might have passed on it. Just not what I was in the mood for currently. But in the end I’m glad I read it because there were a lot of things I did like.
This is definitely a character-driven novel. It’s definitely more about characters than plot. And whenever I say that, it always tends to scare people away, but it really shouldn’t. If you go into this book knowing that you will be getting to know the characters and their lives a great deal, and that the pacing is much slower than usual, then I am sure you will enjoy it. Yun Ling was a tough character to like at times. Because she had been through so much in the Japanese internment camp, you really wanted to feel for her and understand her situation. But it was hard, because a lot of times I felt she was being unfair to the people around her. Especially Aritomo, the Japanese gardener. Yes, he was Japanese, but just because there were Japanese that treated you terribly in the camp doesn’t mean you should paint an entire nationality with the same brush. And she did. Like I said, I feel for her. I cannot begin to understand what being in that camp and losing her sister was like, but all I can do is apply what I know about life. And you just don’t treat people that way. It really messed with her mind a lot. This is a book that I believe will leave you feeling conflicted emotionally. I grew quite attached to Aritomo and I felt strange about that as well because he was the Emperor Hirohito’s gardener. I don’t even know what to say. It was a tough read. But I loved that about it. But definitely character-driven. It was about feelings, emotions, and relationships.
Apart from my issues with the participle phrases, most of the writing was gorgeous. The imagery the author managed to create was out of this world. The Cameron Highlands in Malaysia sounds like an amazing place. All those terraced tea plantations? Gorgeous. Here’s a paragraph from the book that I feel captures the writing and the tone of the book well.
In my mind I saw the stream winding down these mountains, leaving Yugiri, to be pulled into a river. I saw the prayers steam off the water in the morning sun as the river flowed through the rainforest, past a tiger and a mouse-deer drinking from it, past Malay kampongs and aboriginal longhouses and Chinese squatter settlements. I saw a farmer in his paddy field by the river’s edge uncrook his back and gaze upwards to the sky, feeling a cool breeze on his face and a long moment of unexplained contentment.
You will find a lot more writing like that in this book. Beautiful passages and deep character development. It’s about the characters and their lives and the challenges they face. If it sounds like something you might like, I would highly recommend it to you.