Having suffered through a Japanese slave-camp during WWII, Yun Ling Teoh, a young Chinese-descent lawyer in Malaysia, carries around a lot of anger against the Japanese. However, she’d made a promise to her deceased sister that she would build a Japanese garden, so she reluctantly visits Aritomo – the only Japanese gardener in Malaysia. Aritomo refuses to design a garden for Yun Ling, but he offers to take her on as his apprentice so that she may design one herself. Yun Ling learns to let go of her anger as her friendship with Aritomo grows. But Aritomo has his own secrets.
How can I express what an amazing book this was? Sure, it had a couple of slowish spots (it WAS, after all, a book about gardening) but the story is magical. The historical and cultural backdrop is intriguing (I learned a lot while reading, but didn’t feel like I was being “taught”). Because the book takes place in two different times (current day and shortly after WWII), the story unfolds gracefully – allowing the reader to learn the story of Aritomo and Yun Ling at just the right rate…but yet somehow the time also blends together giving an impression of continuity that is particular to Eastern philosophy. On top of that, the more I learned about the story, the more fascinated I was by the two characters. This book is definitely worth your time.
Interpretive note with possible spoilers
One thing that struck me while I was reading this book is that I noticed an inconsistency in what the narrator (Yun Ling) was saying. At first, I wasn’t sure whether the author had made a mistake or if he had purposely introduced inconsistencies to show that Yun Ling had either an unreliable memory or was hiding something. I finally came to the later conclusion (though the unreliable memory was possible too). I think it’s fascinating that such inconsistencies added to the overall effect rather than subtracting from it. I applaud Tan Twan Eng for his careful writing of this book. 🙂