My Toronto book club discussed Tan Twan Eng’s THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS last week. The verdict was resoundingly in favour of this powerful novel of memory and forgetting, war and peace, love and hate. Although there were points of criticism, most felt the writing style – particularly the descriptive portions, and there are a lot of those – is evocative and beautifully done. The novel is atmospheric and restrained. No one was surprised that it had been nominated for the Man Booker prize.
There was some debate about the main character, Judge Teoh Mun Ling, whose story drives the novel. Some found her persona rather flat while others appreciated her reserve, her passion and the strength she portrays. We see her during WWII and the occupation of Malaysia (then Malaya) by the Japanese when she was a prisoner of war, during the communist insurgency that followed and later in life when she confronts and records her past.
Memories I had locked away have begun to break free, like shards of ice fracturing off an arctic shelf. In sleep, these broken floes drift toward the morning light of remembrance.
Nakamura Aritomo – the other main character – intrigued our reading group. A former gardener to the Japanese Emperor Hirohito, he’s austere, dedicated, enigmatic, passionate, and a master at designing and building gardens that reflect the landscape and deceive the eye. He’s also a master tattooist, a skill that ultimately becomes an unexpected twist in the story.
In terms of criticism, some thought the story moved too slowly and that the multiple time periods and large group of characters were confusing. One of our members felt the book should have been edited down at least 50 pages, if not more. Two people chose not to finish the novel. And there was considerable discussion of the rather flat voice of the narrator – Mun Ling.
Everyone agreed that we’d learned a lot about WWII in that part of the world along with the hardship and brutality suffered during Japanese occupation and appreciated the opportunity to read a novel set in such a different part of the world.
As for me, I’m giving it 4 stars on the Goodreads scale. I believe it’s a novel that deserves to be read slowly and I suspect that I would get even more from the story if I were to read it a second time.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.