I was introduced to The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng, at a book club I frequent. I have enjoyed a good fraction of the books we have selected there, but this was the first one I thought was beautiful. Well-researched historical fiction often ends up being thorough and workmanlike, rather than elegant or stylish: this book definitely bucks the trend.
It is clear from comments at the book club, and those of other reviewers, that many people have disliked the deliberate ambiguities of time and memory in which Eng delights. The book shifts frequently, even within a chapter, often without overt clues, between several time periods in the life of the central character. The uncertainty is strengthened since she is also struggling with progressive memory loss as she ages, and has an understandable and deep-rooted desire to keep certain episodes concealed. Themes of both ordinary and wilful forgetfulness thread through the book, and the author plays his own part in this by refusing to give some issues the prominence which in inter-personal or plot terms they probably deserve. This book invites the reader to engage carefully and deeply.
Superficially the book is about the garden of the title, but both the garden itself and the act of designing it are used as metaphors of personal and social transformation. The garden, the gardener, the novice herself, and the various other people living nearby, all hide important issues within a facade of surface detail. The Second World War and its aftermath was experienced very differently in south east Asia as compared with Europe, and the tensions and traumas of those years have left indelible marks on the people and the land. They emerge in the lives of the characters of this book.
For me The Garden of Evening Mists was without doubt a five star book, and one which has continued to exercise both my imagination and family conversations for many weeks. However, it is clear that it will not appeal to all comers. If you are looking for an action book, or one in which the story flow is clearly signaled and unambiguous, you will not find it here. However, if you like exploring the psyche after it has survived trauma, and do not mind coping with the indeterminacies of memory leading you to and fro in time, this could be a great discovery.