The novel begins thuswise:
On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the emperor of Japan. Not many people would have known of him before the war, but I did. He had left his home on the rim of the sunrise to come to the central highlands of Malaya. I was seventeen years old when my sister first told me about him. A decade would pass before I travelled up to the mountains to see him. He did not apologise for what his countrymen had done to my sister and me. Not on that rain-scratched morning when we first met, nor at any other time. What words could have healed my pain, returning my sister to me? None. And he understood that. Not many people did.And there it is, in a nutshell. The narrator, Teoh Yun Ling, is trying to come to terms with her personal sufferings, and the sufferings of her people, at the hands of the Japanese in World War II. She was the sole survivor of the POW camp in which her own sister died. By the late 1950s she is a judge, angry that the colonial British are doing so little to prosecute Japanese war criminals. But, despite her undisguised hatred of the Japanese, she decides to honour her sister’s wish to have a Japanese-style memorial garden made in her name, and so she seeks out ‘the legendary Nakamura Aritomo’, one-time gardener to the Japanese Emperor, to learn how to build it. Meanwhile the Malaysian Emergency breaks out; communist guerrillas and independence-minded nationalists go to war with one another. Yun Ling grows closer to Aritomo, and discovers why he left Japan (no spoilers: but it has to do with the kamikaze). Interspersed are other historical voices—a veteran of the Boer war, for example—presumably to add depth; and the actual reminiscence is happening, I think I'm right in saying, in the 1980s: Yun Ling looking back, and wanting to get the memoir out before her mind goes.
It’s a novel about forgiveness, but in an (I wondered: pointedly so?) very un-Truth-and-Reconciliation-Committee sort of way—I make the connection because although the author grew up in Malaysia he now lives in Cape Town. Forgiveness here is personal and spiritual, not collective, or performative; and it is extremely hard-won, if it is won at all. Though the novel doesn’t shy away from brutality, at its heart is the building of its garden, and the significances of that process. It's a novel that says: there’s also a sense in which forgiveness is a mode of self-deception. A person hurt badly enough will find it almost impossible to let go of their hatred; and to cultivate the garden of their selves they need to follow Aritomo’s rather gnomic insistence that ‘every aspect of gardening is a form of deception.’
But—there was, I found, a but in my reaction to the novel. But. The whole thing is over-written—stylistically, I mean, although 450-pages struck me as more than the story needed to tell itself. It's very, sometimes cringingly and cripplingly, over-written. Here’s the titular garden:
The high wall protecting the garden was patched in moss and old water stains. Ferns grew in the cracks. Set in the wall was a door. Nailed to the doorpost was a wooden plaque, a pair of Japanese ideograms burned into it. Below these words was the garden’s name in English: EVENING MISTS. I felt I was about to enter a place that existed only in the overlapping of air and water, light and time.But only pseuds actually think like this; and the trowel-applied purple prose pulls awkwardly, and in the end congealishly, against the novel’s larger aesthetic of reticence and silence: ‘we are like every single plant and stone and view in the garden I thought’ the narrator tells us at one point. Are we? Really? “A garden borrows from the earth, the sky, and everything around it, but you borrow from time,” Yun Ling tells Aritomo: “your memories are a form of shakkei too. You bring them in to make your life here feel less empty. Like the mountains and the clouds over your garden, you can see them, but they will always be out of reach.” Because that’s how ordinary human beings talk to other human beings. In real life. Yes indeed.
I concede of course that this may be a mismatch of sensibilities concerning which the fault lies with my European brain. I can see the healing power of gardens in the Voltairean sense of places of work; I was not able to tune into the spiritual significance of the two different modes of garden, Malay and Japanese, elaborated here. My loss, I don’t doubt.
And I have to admit both that some the writing is evocative, and more importantly that the whole will probably work even better for a reader whose heart is not, like mine, withered and unreceptive to the larger Spiritual One-ness Mystical Vibe thing. ‘The hollow of the valley reminds me of the open palms of a monk, cupped to receive the day’s blessing’ is nicely put; and some of the more contrived descriptions are good (‘Sparrows rise from the grass into the trees like fallen leaves returning to their branches’). But the inability of any of the descriptions of the natural world to be other than deeply imbued with Spiritual Significance began to pall on me pretty quickly (‘Swallows swooped from their nests in the caves, the tips of their wings brushing past my head. In the sky above me the last line of prayer from the mosque drifted away, leaving only silence where its echo had been’); and some of the similes are just naff. To return to the very first page of the book:
Memories I had locked away have begun to break free, like shards of ice fracturing off an arctic shelf. In sleep, these broken floes drift towards the morning light of remembrance. Upon them, the polar bears of anxiety devour the seals of significance until the Titanic of imaginative constipation crashes into them.Well, not that last sentence, of course. But the first two. And they’re I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue-ish enough.
In the low mists over the hills, an orange glow broods, as if the trees are on fire. Bats are flooding out from the hundreds of caves that perforate these mountainsides. I watch them plunge into the mists without any hesitation, trusting in the echoes and silences in which they fly. Are all of us the same, I wonder, navigating our lives by interpreting silences between words spoken, analysing the returning echoes of our memory in order to chart the terrain, in order to make sense of the world around us?A little of this goes a long way, I feel; and there’s a lot of this.