I enjoyed the paperback of this book so much, and the Audio was such a good sale. I didn’t know which I would pick but I read the paperback first. I was satisfied at that point but then some of my reading group differed with my opinion! I stuck the earplugs in – heh.
To be sure, this reading highlighted those areas where the book has some problems – which members of that group pointed out. I still really appreciate the novel but … yes, there are some issues. I guess I was just blown away by the lovely prose and a bit confused by the chronology the first time round.
I know the book probably has significant problems if you try to read it literally as historically accurate and typical of the tales and people of the region – I don’t care (although I probably should). I love it for its mystique, for the myths and fairy tales and legends which permeate it and create a “garden of evening mists” through the lens of an aging woman who has some memory loss, in a community of mixed ethnicities, in a country which has seen devastation and rebellion and lastly in a garden created in order to hide the truth – by being exactly so controlled. Aritomo might have been a legend – a modern day Lao Tzu (not quite but…).
I don’t think Aritomo was your typical Japanese male of the times – he was an artist, a thinker. He lived peacefully in an area of Malaya which was heavily Chinese and other ethnic groups. He could easily have broken with the Emperor prior to the war – others think not – the book is very unclear – deliberately. The man is a mystery.
Aritomo says he came to Malaya because he accepted a commission to work for the Empress’s cousin but they fought over Aritomo’s designs. The Emperor demanded Aritomo apologize but Aritomo refused and resigned instead and didn’t accept commissions. He led a rather loose life – but remembered the tea planter from Malaya and went there. He never went home – “It is not my home anymore.” “All have been swept away in the storm.” (probably about 1939) –
He tells her that she ended up here, too, borrowing from her sister’s dreams –
Aritomo was born in 1900 – so- how old is he? About 50 when Yun Ling arrived and 52 or so when he left (?)
And she has her load of history – she is suffering from survivor guilt and the guilt of having assisted the Japanese during the camps period, hoping to save her sister. She is guilty of sentencing Japanese to death for war crimes and for not mailing the letter which was entrusted to her.
Yes, my idea is disputed by rumors of other possibilities whichTatsuji tells Yun Ling about, but I still go with what Aritomo said about himself – it seems to have more substance and holds up as well as anything what with his support from the community, from Emily and Magnus and Frederick, even Ah Chong . (That said, I think this is ambiguous enough to be a matter of choice for the reader.)
The characters and setting seem to go with the writing style – it’s either in your face the present (1980s – treasure myths and Communists), or mystical, magical nostalgic for the 1950-’52 period. The labor camp style was pretty straight forward but wisely separated into its own section. And Yun Ling’s time as a judge is something she apparently has mixed feelings about.
Yun Ling’s motives change (and one would think she’d have had her fill of revenge sitting as a judge for what – 25 years?) from (chronologically) survival (1940s) to making a garden (1950-’52?) to vengeance on Japanese (1953-1985) to writing her memories before they are no longer available (late 1980s). Japan has changed from being an aggressive war nation to being occupied to economic growth (and demilitarization). Malay has gone from being occupied by Japan, then occupied by England, then independence.
All this ambiguity, the changing motives and times, the non-linear structure make for a book which is very difficult to really get a solid handle on.
The novel becomes a profound exploration of personal and national honor; guilt and complicity; what it means to atone; and what it takes to forgive,” said the judging panel that also included Vikram Chandra and Monique Truong.”
I don’t change my mind – I still think the book is a lovely fictional rendering of a garden of “borrowed” characters and lives. The themes are strong, love, loss, war and its horrendous acts of cruelty, loyalty – the chronology is fine after you get the hang of it –