Tan Twan Eng’s novel is the only Booker Prize contender about gardens, so it has immediate appeal to me. It’s also a story set in the tropics – a story of intrigue, passion and conflict, with more than a nod in the direction of Somerset Maugham, and as I’ve been devoted to his stories since childhood, it’s just up my street.
‘The Garden of Evening Mists’ has been built by Nakamura Aritoma, the former gardener to Emperor Hirohito, in the Cameron Highlands in Malaya, at the time when it was a British Colony. The narrator is a Chinese Malaysian, Teoh Yun Ling, who, after being held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese becomes Aritoma’s apprentice while he restores the garden after the war. She is looking back on her life after being diagnosed with Aphasia, a degenerative condition which will mean that she will lose her memory within a year. The irony is that she has spent all her life trying to erase the memory of her time in the concentration camp, and now all the wants to do is save her memory.
“A part of me cannot help but continue to wonder about it. Aphasia. Such a beautiful name, I think as I sit on the stump of a mahogany tree. It reminds me of a flower: Camellia perhaps. No: more like Rafflesia, attracting hordes of flies with the smell of rotting meat when it blooms”
Last year’s Booker winner was Julian Barnes’ ‘The Sense of an Ending’, which also had memory as its theme, and if the judges don’t remember that, ‘The Garden of Evening Mists’ will be a worthy winner.