Archives » Booker Prize

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Canongate, 2012, 349 p.

The Garden of Evening Mists cover

Tan Twan Eng is the first Malaysian author whom I have read, though The Garden of Evening Mists is not a translation, being written in English and on the Booker Prize short list in 2012.

Narrator Teoh Yun Ling is a prominent Malaysian judge planning to retire as she is beginning to show the first signs of memory loss. During the Japanese occupation in the Second World War she – along with her sister, Yun Hong – had been imprisoned in an internment camp where Yun Ling suffered the loss of two fingers in a punishment (and Yun Hong was forced into being one of the jugun ianfu (military comfort women.) Yun Ling was the only survivor (“I was lucky.”) Post-war she made her name in legal circles by taking part in the War Crimes Tribunal as a prosecutor.

The novel is Yun Ling’s account of her life especially during the Malayan ‘Emergency’ of the 1950s when she briefly abandoned her legal career to try to fulfil her sister’s dream – following a visit to Japan in 1938 – of building her own Japanese garden. Despite her hatred of Japanese people she agreed to become a pupil of Nakimura Aritomo, a Japanese man living locally, who had once been the Emperor’s gardener but had come to Malaya – apparently in disgrace – before the war began, built a garden called Yugiri (the garden of evening mists of the title which, among others, utilises the principle of ‘borrowed scenery’) and several times during the war interceded with the occupiers to ease the lot of local Malays. Another principle character is Magnus, a Boer, who recounts the iniquities of the British treatment of Boer civilians during the Second Boer War in the original concentration camps as if to point out the lack of difference between Japanese and British. Nevertheless the war caused a frosting of the relationship between Magnus and Aritomo. (I note here that Asian names in the book are given in the Oriental style, family name first.)

Aritomo’s designs for the garden are rendered in the style of ukiyo-e prints (think Hokusai’s “Great Wave”) and he is also skilled in the art of horimono – whole body tattoos – both of which are not incidental to the unfolding secret of the book.

Tan weaves all these ingredients together into a compelling narrative, holding back information till just the right point, introducing complicating characters to build intrigue (for example the group of Japanese saying they wish to identify graves of the fallen but clearly with a different agenda,) illustrating the exigencies of life during the Emergency (which another author might have used as the book’s focus but Tan does not) and blending them all – including Yun Ling’s internment experiences – into the plot.

A slight clumsiness with information dumping early on and the speed with which Yun Ling comes to terms with Aritomo mean the novel doesn’t quite scale the absolute highest literary peaks but it is at times exquisitely written. It was certainly worth a place on that Booker prize short list. No surprise it didn’t win though. It was up against Bring up the Bodies.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘five week’s time’” (five weeks’ time,) “‘For goodness’ sake’” (if the apostrophe is there ‘for goodness’s sake, better to leave it out.) “‘My mother died when I was a four’” (when I was four,) snuck (sneaked,) in a list of Japanese gardening tools – named in italics – their translations are given immediately after, but the first translation ‘mallet’ is still in italics. “‘Less chances of an ambush’” (‘Less chance’, or, ‘Fewer chances’, but it was in dialogue.) “‘He’s works in Bangkok’” (He works in Bangkok,) miniscule (minuscule,) “sharing them with Yun Ling and the other women in my hut” (it is Yun Ling narrating this, so ‘sharing them with Yun Hong’.) “A line of cars were parked” (strictly; a line …. was parked.) “The two men looked at each another” (‘at each other’; or, ‘at one another’,) tealeaves (tea-leaves.)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Bloomsbury, 2017, 354 p

 Lincoln in the Bardo cover

This book won the Booker Prize in 2017. While I recognise it is stylistically inventive – the tale is told through a series of short passages (none more than three pages long at most, some containing only three or so words,) apparent extracts from accounts or memoirs of the time and dialogue “spoken” by the novel’s characters, some of whom continue others’ sentences, and all appended by the source or speaker credited with their identity in a line or three whose text is aligned to the centre of the page – I confess I was a bit underwhelmed. To me it seemed as if the text layout could as easily have been presented as in a play (ie with the speaker identified in capitals on the left) without making any material difference to the content. That also would have had the advantage of signalling the speaker before the dialogue commenced, instead of having to wait for that if the passage ran on to a page which required to be turned to reveal it. I can see, though, it may well work better as a dramatic presentation on film or TV, particularly the voice-intercutting parts.

The concept, Abraham Lincoln’s dead son Willie continues an existence beyond death in a kind of limbo – the bardo of the title; a Tibetan term, though I did not notice that word in the text. Lincoln’s visits to his dead son’s body create a disturbance in the bardo (for its denizens can see and hear him and others in the corporeal world) as much as they were commented on by his contemporaries.

The bardo’s occupants, for whatever reason prevented from moving on to heaven or hell, reveal details of themselves and their lives, and make attempts to communicate with Lincoln, feeling his thoughts as he strolls through the cemetery or sits in the mausoleum where Willie’s body lies. They do not refer to coffins or caskets or tombs. Each lies in, or rises from, a “sick-box”, they still retain hope of returning to their former life and in many cases do not recognise the passing of time.

For children, lingering in the bardo is thought to be undesirable. Our two main voices, hans vollman and roger bevins iii (occupants’ names are always given in lower case italics in the text) encourage Willie Lincoln to pass through. For longer term bardo lingerers such a moving on is accompanied by “the bone-chilling firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon.” Willie’s refusal to do so and realisation through experiencing his father’s thoughts that he is in fact dead, provoke the novel’s crisis.

Though at times I found myself nodding off I doubt this was the book’s fault. (I did not read it in the most propitious circumstances.) Saunders writes well and provides plenty of incident and memoir while his prose is easy to read. But I constantly found myself wondering, what is the point of it? Which part of the human condition is this meant to illuminate? By definition dead people are dead and cannot communicate back to us – and they do not in this novel (even if they do think they influence Lincoln’s actions, and those of other corporeal characters, in a small way.) Perhaps I am more attuned to the idea of fiction set in an afterlife than those swept up in the buzz surrounding the book, less struck by the idea of it being somehow original.

Pedant’s corner:- many of the characters “speak” – or their voices are rendered in – their own particular demotic, with spelling and so on signalling such. I did not note these instances. Otherwise: “but none are saved, all are lost,” (none is saved.)

New Model Army by Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2010, 282p.

 New Model Army cover

You know that you’re reading something a bit out of the ordinary when the first sentence of a novel is “I am not the hero of this story.” Whether or not this statement is reliable is a question that can only be answered by reading the whole but, coupled with the narrator’s knowingness about how a novel ought to be structured, shows a strong authorial awareness of his craft. It is a consciously literary sentence and the novel as a whole bears out its promise. I didn’t much take to Roberts’s 2011 novel By Light Alone but was more impressed by his much earlier Stone. A back cover quote on New Model Army from Kim Stanley Robinson says, “Roberts should have won the 2009 Booker Prize.” (That would have been for Roberts’s prior book Yellow Blue Tibia which I have yet to read. New Model Army has literary claims to have won it in 2010. I can see why it was not considered, though.)

The New Model Army of the title, whose members have named it Pantegral, is – like other NMAs of its sort – a truly democratic one. Enabled by the internet – its communications and information web is referred to as a “Wiki” throughout – to communicate and discuss in real time, they vote on proposals on tactical and strategic matters and act on the majority decision. This contrasts with the hierarchical, feudal structures of the traditional state army against which it fights – and repeatedly defeats.

The battle sequences are believably described though the background to the war that is taking place in a disintegrating UK is a trifle – if amusingly – far-fetched. In addition the ease with which the NMA’s members access advanced ordinance wasn’t fully obvious, the rest of life in England, which is where the first segment is set, seems little different from the present where such access is limited to say the least. (Or I hope it is.)

An echo of Stone is in the narration. Here the narrative is a kind of memoir addressed as if to a US colonel by whom Block is being interrogated and who wishes to use him as a weapon against NMAs. Unless we are to infer that later Block returns to the US this doesn’t quite work in the second long section when Block falls into the hands of an Alsatian NMA known as Schäferhund, nor in the very much shorter third segment.

New Model Army has important things to say about why wars occur and the nature of humanity – what we do in general and why we do it. Treating not only with the evolution of humanity beyond feudalism into the “giants” of the NMAs but also with the literary perennials of love and death, it packs a lot into its 282 pages.

(Unfortunately there was a span count of 3, though; plus 1 “lay.”)

free hit counter script