Tan Twan Eng’s second novel made 2012’s Man Booker shortlist, and, in the grand tradition of Oscar nominees, I can see why: it’s got an exotic location (for a British audience, anyway), a war, a prison camp, a brutalized and traumatised female survivor, an unusual love affair, and a book-load of unexpected detail about arcane subjects, including Japanese gardening, tattooing and woodcut-printing, as well as the history of the Malayan Emergency—maybe one of the few post-WWII political situations that isn’t yet suffering from literary exhaustion.
Teoh Yun Ling is the daughter of a wealthy and influential Straits Chinese family in colonial Malaya. When the Japanese invade her county during the Pacific War, she’s taken, with her sister, to a secret prison work-camp. At the war’s end, thanks to her friendship with a key Japanese officer, she’s the camp’s only survivor. She later trains as a lawyer, prosecuting Japanese war criminals, before abandoning her career to seek out Nakamura Aritomo, former gardener to Emperor Hirohito, and a friend of her father’s old friend, South African landowner, Magnus Pretorius. In the mountains of Malaya, Yun Ling becomes Aritomo’s apprentice, working in his Garden of Evening Mists and learning to make a Japanese garden as a memorial to her murdered sister. Meanwhile, the Malayan Emergency is underway, with Communist terrorists murdering foreign planters and settlers, and Malayan nationalists seeking to overthrow British rule. As the fighting escalates, Yun Ling opens up to Aritomo about her experiences in the war. Years later, now a respected judge, she returns to Garden of Evening Mists to deal with Aritomo’s legacy, and uncovers some final truths about his role in Malaya’s, and her own, wartime history.
The detail here is undeniably fascinating: Malaya’s/Malaysia’s history hasn’t been written about much—or, at least, hasn’t yet made much of an impact in the Western, English-speaking publishing scene—and so there’s a wealth of information about WWII and the country’s colonial troubles that many readers will gobble up. And then there’s the pages devoted to Japanese garden design—aesthetic principles like that of Shakkei (borrowed scenery) and asymmetry—which might sound a little dry, but are actually pretty thought-provoking.
Yun Ling’s story—her imprisonment and trauma, and her struggle to reconcile her relationship with Aritomo with her hatred for the Japanese—has the kind of tragic/dramatic attraction that always seems to grab the public’s attention. And Tan manages to include several other testimonies—a Japanese kamikaze pilot, in particular—meaning that the novel manages to convey a fairly inclusive portrait of the experiences of those non-Westerners caught up in the Pacific campaign, as well as the tensions and social intricacies of a multi-cultural community (Chinese, Malayan, British and Japanese) that doesn’t, compared to say, the Indian equivalent, get much reported on in the West. There’s even glimpses of the Boer war and South African politics of the early twentieth century.
Tan’s enigmatic male lead, Aritomo, talks about the importance of deception in gardening, and this is reflected in the author’s storytelling: Yun Ling’s story unwinds through multiple flashbacks, so that the reader slowly comes to understand the magnitude of her experiences and those of her friends as various lies and cover-ups are overturned. It’s a tried-and-test approach, with its parallel contemporary and historical narratives and revelations, and it keeps the reader interested, but for a Booker shortlistee, I found it a little tired. That’s not Tan’s fault, obviously, but it’s what prompted my Oscar comparison above: the novel’s attraction lies in its content, rather than its style or literary innovation, and I don’t know that I agree that this is what the Booker judges ought to be rewarding. After al, despite the emphasis on deception, it’s not really working the unreliable narrator angle, because Yun Ling’s withholding of information seems more motivated by Scheherazade-like page-turning motives than by anything intrinsic to her narrative, which is, after all, a pretty straightforward tale of wartime conflict and confused political allegiances. Other reviews have praised the book’s linguistic refinement, but Yun Ling’s voice isn’t particularly distinctive, (even if her experiences are) and though I found the book more compelling as it went along, if I hadn’t been reading it for review, I might have quit within the first fifty pages. It’s a good story, and, if conventionally-told, still well-told, but from a stylistic standpoint, it’s far from memorable.
Any Cop?: I came late to this one—Mantel and Moore were my two Booker reads this year—and though I think it’s pretty clear why it didn’t win (pitted against Mantel’s prose, Tan didn’t stand a chance), it’ll appeal greatly to anyone who comes to literature for esoteric info, as well as anyone who likes a good old war-deprivation story or a Pacific setting. My quibbles are more to do with its Booker nomination than its failings as a novel, because it’s not a bad read at all. But if you’re after something startling and literary, keep on hunting.