The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng is not an easy read, and I admit I almost gave up on it more than once. It was not quite what I expected and I found it hard to "get into". But I persevered (not sure why... just stubborn, I guess. lol)
Do you read the brief synopsis on the book jacket when you choose a book at the library? I do, and I base my decision on that, if I am unfamiliar with the book. I thought this one sounded good: "Malaya, 1951. Yun Ling Teoh, the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle-fringed tea plantations of Cameron Highlands. 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 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 ultimately drawn to the gardener and his art, while all around them a communist guerilla war rages. But the Garden of Evening Mists remains a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all?"
I know very little of the history of Asia, or of the complex political dynamics and the Japanese Occupation of Malaysia in the 40's, let alone the continued attacks by the Chinese Maoists, Chiang Kai-shek's troops, and an aboriginal culture, the Orang Asli throughout the 50's. A multi-layered story, which jumped forwards and backwards in three different time periods frequently (without clues or dates) made it difficult to follow. There are a number of characters, many with unusual names, which I found a challenge to keep straight. As well a number of Japanese words are used throughout the novel without benefit of a glossary. These all combined for tough sledding for this humble reader... The horrors of the Japanese prison camps and the cruelty and torture inflicted on the prisoners and Malayan citizens are balanced by the aesthetic beauty of Yugiri, the Japanese garden, a place of calm and serenity, reflection and spirituality. Yun Ling (and the reader) learn not only of the formal Japanese principles of garden design and the importance of "shakkei", but also of ukiyo-e (wood block printing) and horimono ( traditional Japanese full body tattoos). I've had a fascination with anything Japanese since childhood (I had a Japanese penpal for about 5 years) and I'm glad, in the end, that I stuck with it, but, as I said, it was tough going. It's not a "light" read...
"Books have been my classroom and my confidant. Books have widened my horizons. Books have comforted me in my hardest times. Books have changed my life." ~ Po Bronson.