Booktrotting in Malaysia: The Garden of Evening Mists

After a brief tour of Oceania, my Booktrotting tour now begins its Asian leg, with a window on post-war Malaysia in Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists.

It was Sunday, and the tea-fields were deserted. In the valleys, the points of light from the farmhouses were as faint as stars behind a weave of clouds. The moon was retreating behind the mountains, the same moon I had seen at almost every dawn in the camp. So long after my imprisonment, there were still moments when I found it difficult to believe that the war was over, that I had survived.

It is 1951, and Malaya is beginning to undo the damage wrought by its brutal Second World War occupation by Imperial Japan. Its people are recovering too, and for Teoh Yun Ling, a former detainee in a Japanese internment camp, that means constructing a memorial garden for her sister, who perished where Yun Ling survived.

Her endeavours lead her to the mist-bound slopes of Malaya’s mountain highlands, and to the door of Nakamura Aritomo: once the chief gardener to Emperor Hirohito himself, now living in exile in the land his own people ravaged. Under Aritomo’s guidance, Yun Ling learns how to bring to life the garden her sister always dreamt of—and all the while comes to terms with the horrors of her past.

Bharat Tea Plantation, Bjørn Christian Tørrissen / CC-BY-SA-3.0

When I started my Booktrotting project, The Garden of Evening Mists was exactly the kind of novel I hoped I would encounter. As a story it’s spellbinding, a rich weave of complex characters and emotions that unfolds delicately through Yun Ling’s pain-driven narrative; and, spanning as it does some of the most seismic events in the region’s recent past, I could hardly have asked for a better grounding in the historical foundations of modern Malaysia.

Although the events of this novel are huge in scale (covering not only the Pacific War but also the communist guerrilla “Emergency” that followed) its thematic focus is relatively small. Tan treats the sweep of Malaya’s military struggles as more of a backdrop than the cornerstone of his plot, training his focus instead on the ground-level story of Yun Ling—on the raw grief of her sister’s death, her hatred of the Japanese, and the thorny duality of her relationship with Aritomo.

In that sense, The Garden of Evening Mists is very reminiscent of Evelio Rosero’s The Armies. As Rosero used his narrator’s agony at the loss of his wife to reflect the wider damage wrought on Colombia by its conflict, so too does Tan Twan Eng seem to be speaking in terms much larger than an individual character when it comes to the enduring effects Yun Ling’s internment had upon her.

Penang, Tys / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Throughout The Garden of Evening Mists many characters remark on Yun Ling’s understandable anger towards her captors, and how her inability to move beyond that stage of grief is not only preventing her emotional wounds from healing, but is also causing her more pain the longer she dwells on it. Indeed, at the beginning of the story Tan reveals that this has already cost Yun Ling her job: as a state prosecutor, she was fired after publicly criticising the colonial British government for acting too leniently towards Japanese war criminals.

But the irony here is that Yun Ling is doomed to leave her past behind, whether she wants to or not—she suffers from aphasia, a brain condition robbing her of her memories. The other characters who urge her to let go are entirely unaware that the reason Yun Ling clings so fiercely to her past, and especially to its most traumatising scenes, is that the resulting pain is the only thing sharp enough to keep her from losing such an integral part of herself.

In an interview with bookbrowse.com, Tan described Malaysia as “very forgiving—or forgetful” when it comes to the legacy of the Japanese Occupation; he added that following the release of his debut novel The Gift of Rain, set in wartime Penang, many Malaysian readers said that they had been unaware of story’s historical events prior to reading it.

(In an interesting side-note, Tan also advocates the educational preservation of Malaysia’s historic and colonial-era buildings, which he feels are too readily discarded to make space for modern developments like the iconic Petronas Towers.)

It’s not hard, then, to imagine that The Garden of Evening Mists was written in response to this. Through Yun Ling and the characters surrounding her, Tan calls for a balance between the pain of remembrance and the dangers of being all too hasty to forget; a balance that allows Malaysia to look to its future without disregarding the lessons of its past. For whilst the horrors of the Japanese Occupation are inevitably hard to hold on to, the alternative—losing those memories forever—would be far, far worse.

Petronas Towers, McKay Savage / CC-BY-2.0

The next stop on my journey takes me northwards to Japan itself, and the setting of Snow Country by 1968 Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata.

Booktrotting in New Zealand: The Luminaries

Continuing on from the remote Republic of Kiribati, my South Pacific journey has taken a turn back in time to the New Zealand gold rush of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

He found that he was disappointed: the West Coast Times read like a parish gazette. But what had he expected? That a goldfield would be an exotic phantasm, made of glitter and promise? That the diggers would be notorious and sly—every man a murderer, every man a thief?

In 1866, Scotsman Walter Moody lands in New Zealand, ready to make his fortune on the South Island goldfields. But when he arrives in the middle of the night, he stumbles instead across a secret meeting of twelve local men, and is drawn into their confidence as they discuss a series of unsolved mysteries—the disappearance of a wealthy man, the attempted suicide of a whore, and a fortune found in a dead man’s home.

It was easy for me to empathise with Moody. Not knowing anything about The Luminaries beforehand, I was as adrift as he was upon entering Eleanor Catton’s world and finding what felt like a play I was seeing from the interval onwards. The incidents described in the blurb had already taken place, their consequences were already underway, and around me were a dozen characters whose roles in the story were already established, and who were now obliged to fill Moody and myself in on everything we’d missed.

But if that sounds confusing or tedious, it was far from it—Eleanor Catton is much too masterful a storyteller for that. Hers is a plot built with finesse, its revelations deployed with the exactitude of one who knows just when to illuminate and when to remain cryptic. As the truth unfurls it does so seductively—helped along in no small way by Catton’s charming pastiche of the Victorian theatric, blending sex, murder and buried treasure behind a fog of opium smoke. If you enjoy getting lost in the likes of Anna Karenina or The Count of Monte Cristo, then this is definitely the book for you.

Hokitika River and Hokitika Gorge, Pseudopanax / Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Luckily I loved both of those novels, and so The Luminaries was a perfect fit for my reading taste. But when I was first planning my Booktrotting itinerary, I was reluctant to include it as my New Zealand stop; for one reason or another, I thought my literary world tour would be better served by a setting more contemporary than 1866.

But on the other hand, I was also drawn irresistibly to the backdrop of the West Coast Gold Rush. For all my knowledge of New Zealand’s vineyards and film locations, I know next to nothing about the country’s past, and had no idea it had even had a gold rush—I’d always thought prospectors were exclusive to the American west.

And so with a history lesson in mind, I could hardly have asked any more of The Luminaries. Its plot may be intentionally fanciful to the extreme, but the framework beneath is rife with historical detail: from characters’ names and clothes, to the hierarchy of township society, even to the fine print of shipping insurance, the meticulousness of Catton’s research deserves at least as much praise as the novel itself. She doesn’t so much construct the 19th century West Coast as resurrect it; so tangibly authentic is her depiction of Hokitika’s streets that they feel like a period drama set just waiting for the crew to start filming (which, incidentally, shouldn’t be long now).

Hokitika Township ca 1870s, James Ring / National Library of New Zealand (public domain)

But of all the elements of historical accuracy, the one Catton captures best is the diversity found at what was, in 1866, the effective end of the world.

To call her ensemble cast of characters “diverse” wouldn’t quite do it justice—”motley” would probably come closer. In the first scene alone, Scottish-born Moody rubs shoulders not just with émigrés from his own British Isles, but also from Norway, France, Germany and China; there’s surely no irony lost in the character of Te Rau Tauwhare, the only native Maori presence in The Luminaries‘ 832 pages.

Catton uses this kaleidoscope of different perspectives to paint Hokitika in the abstract, as something exotic, elusive and ever-changing, a scene distorted by the expectations of it. Depending on the character, New Zealand means riches, revenge, adventure, anonymity: to some it is the start of a new life, to others it’s just a different place to die.

The paths that lead these characters across the Pacific sound veritably swashbuckling when read together. But I can’t help wondering if that is in fact the point; if, in borrowing from the playbook of the penny dreadful, Catton is also poking fun at our romantic, “greener grass” view of life in this far corner of the world. It’s certainly not hard to see how the modern attraction of New Zealand has grown in part from its goldfield past, and from the tales of glory and wild wonder that would have reached Britain from the West Coast in 1866.

But that being said, it’s clear Catton isn’t trying to debunk New Zealand’s reputation as an idyllic escape—The Luminaries merely presents a tickled new perspective on where that might have originated. And of course, even if our impression of the country has been inflated somewhat by the lens of time and distance, there’s no denying that there is some truth to New Zealand’s allure. It is, after all, still a truly breathtaking country…

Lake Matheson, Mrogex / CC-BY-SA

Next up is the final stop on my Oceania leg—Australia, for which my guide will be Tim Winton’s story of surfing and boyhood, Breath.

January in Books: His Bloody Project; The Essex Serpent; Voyage of the Basilisk

Ah, January—the month of new beginnings and fresh book goals. As well as starting a new Booktrotting chapter in Oceania, this month’s reading has been mostly about making a dent in my stack of literary Christmas presents, starting with bloody murder in the Scottish highlands, and a double helping of sea-serpents…


His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet

A surprise and an underdog it may have been, but there’s no denying His Bloody Project deserved its place on the 2016 Man Booker shortlist. Billed by the blurb as a simple historical fiction about a murder and its following trial, what sets this novel apart is Burnet’s unique choice of form. Presenting the story as true from the outset, he tells it not via the usual prose but with a collection of “found” witness statements, court documents and the memoir of the accused—think The Blair Witch Project meets Law & Order: Scottish Victims Unit.

But whilst that certainly made for an interesting concept, I’m still not entirely sure it resulted in the best read. It just felt a little too choppy to get into: the section comprising murderer Roddy’s memoir was a classic piece of historical fiction, compelling as it mounted to its bloody climax and so vibrantly real in its portrayal of Victorian Highland life; but for all its strengths, that part felt too short, and the medical reports and trial coverage far too long. For now, I’m still in two minds about His Bloody Project, though perhaps in time I’ll appreciate it better.


The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

But if I’m still unsure about His Bloody Project, I couldn’t be any more certain by comparison about The Essex Serpent. In the wake of the death of her abusive husband, the intrepid Cora Seabourne leaves behind the pity and mourning of London and rents a house in the tiny Essex parish of Aldwinter. Indulging her love of palaeontology amongst the fossil-rich clay of the Blackwater estuary, Cora’s dream of emulating Mary Anning soars when she learns that Aldwinter is haunted by a primordial sea-serpent…

I don’t think it would be too much to say that I really and truly fell for The Essex Serpent. The promise of a foggy riverbank and accompanying Gothic beastie would probably have been enough on its own to make this a good novel, but what makes it great is how Perry lets it swell to a level of complexity far beyond the mere terror of the Serpent. More than anything The Essex Serpent is a story about human relationships, about the different forms of love binding Cora’s circle of mismatched friends together; it’s also the story of England facing great change, as society’s old certainties are tested by feminism, socialism, science and reason, and people’s fears of this new age take shape as a serpent in the mist.

With everything The Essex Serpent sets out to be, it’s no wonder it’s won Sarah Perry so much praise over the last year—and that’s without even mentioning the beauty of Perry’s writing itself, and the way her voice flourishes into passages so sublime I couldn’t help but read them twice. It is simply an astounding novel, and I couldn’t recommend it enough.


Voyage of the Basilisk, Marie Brennan

And speaking of sea serpents, after finishing The Essex Serpent there really was no other way to follow it up than by setting off with Marie Brennan’s Isabella Camherst, dragon naturalist and the Indiana Jones of fantastic palaeontology—the spirit of Mary Anning would have it no other way.

Voyage of the Basilisk, the third instalment in Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series (of which part five is out this April), sees Isabella embark on a two-year voyage aboard the RSS Basilisk, searching for sea-serpents in the far-flung oceans of the world. It’s this use of location that is one of this series’ main strengths: although the content of each volume is more or less the same—dragons are sought, shenanigans ensue, discoveries are made—Brennan uses her knack for worldbuilding to set each novel in an environment that not only keeps the story feeling fresh, but is also completely tangible, with whole languages and cultures that seem fully at home in the worlds they inhabit. From frigid mountains to swamps and savannahs, and now to the seas of Yelang and Dajin, these books are an armchair explorer’s dream.

However, it must be said that whilst the locations of Voyage of the Basilisk were as good as ever, the pacing of the book itself was a little off compared to its predecessors. It’s hardly surprising, given the task of condensing two years at sea into just 365 pages, but with so many time cuts it all felt too episodic to really flow as one narrative—nevertheless, with the scenery rolling ever by, and to the sound of Isabella’s whip-cracking wit, this still proved to be a highly enjoyable slice of escapism.

New Year’s Reading List

New year, new books: now there’s a resolution I can get behind. In my opinion, there’s no finer way to kick-start the year than by getting your teeth into a new book, whether that means taking a chance on an author you’ve never heard of or knocking a few of those Christmas gifts and holiday sale bargains off the to-be-read shelf.

With all the new beginnings in the air, I also like to spend some time on the approach to spring tackling some of those books I feel I should have read already, the Steinbeck and the Nabokov and the D. H. Lawrence—those books I buy from charity shops because they look all literary, but somehow never get round to reading at the time. Last year it was the time for To the Lighthouse and Fahrenheit 451, but I think with the way things are looking for the foreseeable future, it might be a good idea to make my reading list a little more dystopian this year…


The Sellout, Paul Beatty

Last year it took me pretty much forever to get round to reading the 2015 Man Booker winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings, so this year I’m determined not to be so sluggish with Paul Beatty’s 2016 winner The Sellout. Yes, that does mean giving it quite the bump to the top of my 80-strong to-read list—but given its satirical look at race relations in the US, and with many Americans currently re-evaluating whether racism is really as bad as everyone says (yeah, it really is), there doesn’t seem to be any more fitting time than the present to make myself acquainted with The Sellout.


img_3230His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet

Another to-be-read from last year’s Man Booker shortlist, with all the praise Graeme Macrae Burnet’s fictional murder case study has garnered I could hardly say no to giving it a spin—not to mention my love of all things Scottish wouldn’t let me pass it up if I tried.


img_32351984, George Orwell

1984 is one of those books mentioned above that caught my eye in a second-hand shop, but once brought home was consigned to wait patiently at the tail end of my to-be-reads. But, as with The Sellout, the zeitgeist is pointing me towards Orwell’s Big Brother classic; after all, we probably haven’t got much time before 1984 stops being fiction and becomes enshrined as legitimate prophecy.


img_3234The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

One of the many books to arrive mysteriously in my stocking on Christmas morning, I fell in love with The Essex Serpent‘s thistly cover and dreamlike prologue so quickly I actually started reading it the minute I unwrapped it. Now two weeks and 150 pages in, this already looks like a pretty solid nominee for my book of the year.


img_3237Stone of Farewell, Tad Williams

I read the first volume of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, The Dragonbone Chair, back at the end of last summer, and after taking a few detours through Middle-Earth and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, I feel it’s about time I got back to Williams’ sword-and-sorcery epics. I’m hoping the series does something to pick up in Stone of Farewell: The Dragonbone Chair was plenty enjoyable but got a bit stale towards the end, and it’ll be a shame if Stone does nothing more than pick up where Chair fizzled out.