Despite the fact that I have read well into the thousands of books, there are only a small number that have really effected me. I could probably name them, off the top of my head. I only ever read a book once, so it is quite possible – likely even – that the impact they had on me was all about timing. That they spoke to something in me that was impermanent, or of particular importance at the time.
Although really, only time will tell, I think The Garden of Evening Mists is one of those books. Right from the outset it just felt ‘right’, like a fit for me and my life right now. The fact that I read all 450 pages in under 48 hours is testament to my utter enjoyment of it and my constant desire to know what happens next.
But I think it had a deeper impact than that. And reflecting on why, it comes down to three things:
1. The descriptions of nature
Throughout the novel I found these particularly evocative and moving. And that is saying something. Not only have I never been to Malaysia or Asia at all and so have no real life experiences on which to base these memorable images, but I am not even interested in art, or TV, or books about nature. I also have a limited imagination, so books do not often evoke images in my mind, in the way they may well do in other peoples’. But undoubtedly, this is the thing that most effected me, on a quite emotional level, throughout the novel. Somehow the way the author used metaphor brought the Malaysian mountain environment alive for me. Some examples would include:
“Insects ground out metallic, clicking sounds. The cicadas wove a mesh of noise over everything. Birdcalls hammered sharp, shiny nails into the air. It was like walking into a busy ironmongers workshop”.
“The imminent rain in the air smelled crisp and metallic, as though it had been seared by the lightening buried in the clouds”.
“Think of the seasons as pieces of the finest, most translucent silk of different colors. Individually, they are beautiful, but lay one on top of another, even if just along their edges, and something special is created.” [Incidentally this example includes something I don’t like about the novel – the author tends to go on to explain metaphors, which should be self-explanatory: “that narrow strip of time, when the start of one season overlaps the other, is like that”.]
And just as the author uses non-natural metaphors to describe nature, so the novel also has a number of natural metaphors used to describe other things:
“It was odd how Aritomo’s life seemed to glance off mine; we were like two leaves falling from a tree, touching each other now and again as they spiraled to the forest floor.”
“The music has the bleak purity of a set of stones lying on the bed of a stream, a stream that dried up a long time ago.”
“My memory is like the moon tonight, full and bright, so bright you can see all its scars.”
2. I learned something
Like most Brits I know a lot about the European story of the Second World War. Due to my family history, personal interest and extensive reading habits, I probably know much more than most. But I really didn’t know that much about the 1930s to 1960s in Asia. This is remiss of me, but something I had never intentionally tried to resolve. But this book taught me a lot, about British Malaysia (then Malaya), the role of the Japanese and their internment camps in Asia during the Second World War and the ‘Emergency’ in Malaya directly following it and preceding independence. For instance, I was never aware that the Japanese invaded Malaya one hour before Pearl Harbour – this was their entry into the war.
My extensive knowledge of the European war also allowed me to draw parallels, making the story a little more personal and less alien at times – universalizing it to some extent, I guess. For instance, at one point the main protagonist states about a Japanese man she meets: “Old enough to have fought in the war, I think; an almost subconscious assessment I apply to every Japanese man I meet”. This statement, or similar, is something I have both read and heard many times in reference to Jews and Germans after the war.
3. The way it discusses memory and the failure of memory
Unlike Philida, where I felt many of the discussions of ‘big themes’, such as freedom, were fairly trite, this novel managed to discuss ‘memory’ in a more innovative, emotional and engaging way. The main protagonist is losing her memory, which is often discussed directly, but alongside this remembering, differences in memories and mis-remembering are woven throughout the book.
Some of the more interesting quotes on memory are:
“Once I lose all ability to communicate with the world outside myself, nothing will be left but what I remember will be like a sandbar, cut off from the shore by the incoming tide. In time they will become submerged, inaccessible to me.”
“There are fragments of my life that I do not want to lose, if only because I have not found the knot to tie them up with.”
“A memory drifts by. I reach for it, as if snatching at a leaf spiraling down from a high branch”.
“Once you step out of your world, it doesn’t wait for you. The world he used to know is gone forever.”
I love almost everything about this book. It is truly different, with a fascinating plot, engaging characters and a wonderful tone. However, I fear it won’t be shortlisted, because – despite my lack of expertise in this area – I am not sure it is sufficiently technically brilliant or innovative. I absolutely adored it and would recommend it to anyone, so I hope they judges prove my nay-saying wrong.