Thanks to Canongate and NetGalley for the Advance Review Copy in exchange for an honest review.
It seems to me that, in general, Canongate is incapable of publishing a duff book. This novel is written by a South East Asian author and the cover is also downright gorgeous. Canongate? Asian Author? Pretty cover? I’m on board.
So how was it? I’ll admit that on the face of it, some might not think the synopsis is the most exciting thing in the world. A young woman wishes to build a Japanese garden to honour the memory of her sister? But this book is so much more than that.
The story follows the main character, Yun Ling, a Straits Chinese woman, through various periods of her life. We see her present as a Judge about to begin her retirement, and also glimpses into her past as a survivor of a Japanese internment camp and her apprenticeship as a gardener with Aritomo, a famous Japanese garden designer.
The novel takes place in the Cameron Highlands of what was Malaya, and the beautiful, lush setting contrasts with some of the horrors that have taken place there during and after the war. The novel looks unflinchingly at the atrocities of war and it’s aftermath, the consequences of loss and grief, as well as exploring the historical context of colonial Malaya, the Communist insurgency and it’s eventual journey towards independence from the British. The novel has moments of brutality, abuse, violence and inhumanity but also love, remembrance, friendship and sublime moments of peace and joy.
What I particularly liked was that this is a novel where nothing is black or white. There are no easy answers to why things happen and why people do what they do. The complex characters exist on a spectrum of greys as opposed to being simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The characters were multi-layered, if a little hard to get to grips with sometimes. I particularly liked the character of the tea planter Magnus (he just seemed like an all round top bloke), and his relationships with those around him. I felt like he was the real beating heart of the story.
This is a beautiful, subtle story which is very readable despite some of its more tragic and difficult moments. Some of the threads of this story are left untied at it’s conclusion and there are mysteries left unresolved and things left unsaid. If you like everything wrapped up nice and neat in a pretty bow then this maybe isn’t the book for you. As for me? I absolutely loved it.