Monday, August 13, 2012

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

The Garden of Evening Mists
Rating: 4.0
The Garden of Evening Mists
A Novel by Tan Twan Eng
2012/350 pages

The day the Booker long list was released, I immediately started looking up the titles and reading the synopsis of each book in order to pick out my 3 books for the BookerMarks project.  I knew I would chose Bringing Up the Bodies as I had really enjoyed Wolf Hall.  My surprise in the list was The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng.  Not only did the title grab my attention, but the story seemed so intriguing.

Yung Lin Toah, a former prisoner of a Japanese work camp during World War II, retires to Malaya, her home for a short period several years after escaping the work camp.  We discover early on that Yung Lin was the only survivor of the Japanese work camp, where she and her sister day dreamed of creating their own Japanese gardens as a way to escape the torture they were forced to bear.  In memory of her sister, Yung Lin embarks to find a way to have a Japanese garden created for her.  Conveniently located near the tea plantation of a family friend, sits the only Japanese garden in Malaya, Yugiri. Interestingly Yugiri was designed and is maintained by Arimoto, a former gardener to the Emperor of Japan.

First and foremost, this is a beautifully written book.  Tan Twan Eng describes in intricate detail using all of the senses many of the physical attributes of the garden and the Malayan surroundings.  There is one passage detailing a heron landing near the garden pond in the mist.  I will remember this passage every time I see a heron, especially when riding my bike along the Reservoir in the rain. Eng is able to make me taste the tea, feel the pain of the tattoo, smell the dirt, hear the swallows and see the intricate surroundings.  His passages are almost poetic they are so beautiful.

However, Eng was never able to allow me to connect with the characters.  Yung Lin was and her imprisonment were so superficial.  I am sure Eng was not writing the book to expose the Japanese as sadistically cruel captors, but he really glossed over the detail of the travesties that occurred in these war time work camps.  Not that I would want to re-read Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken again.  I was never able to connect to Aritomo.  One could see that Yung Lin grew very quickly to care for the man even though he was Japanese and she supposedly hated the "Japs".  None of the other minor characters played a large enough plot to really care about either.  I would have liked to have seen Fredrick developed more, but the reader knew his feelings even if Yung Lin did not. 

The foreshadowing in the book was too precise.  It was like having one's hand held down the path to the end of the book.  Nothing was left for the reader to figure out.  I could tell you where the gold and lost camp happened to be half way through the book.

I am giving the book a 4 although 3.5 may be more accurate.  For literary style and its beautiful descriptions, it does deserve a 5.  For lack of intriguing plot and characters a 3 which would tie it with Harold Frye in my Booker tally.  Hmmm, how do you set up a tie breaker?  Do you give a book that you really enjoyed without much literary style the edge or will the beautifully and artfully written book win out?  Let's wait until I have read Bringing up the Bodies to make any more decisions...

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Book Review: 2012 Long Listed: Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Rating: 4
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
A Novel by Rachel Joyce
2012 / 336 Pages

Some books one picks up just hit a nerve, touch off a series of memories that have been repressed.  They can remind you of a person, place or thing with such a choke hold that you can't put them down for  fear of forgetting about the experience that book has opened back up to you.  When you do put the book down you reminisce about the person,  place or thing before getting up to continue about your day.  The Tigers Wife by Tea Obreht was one of these books for me and now Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is another.
Have you ever woken up one morning and realized you have wasted X number of years of your life?  Have you ever realized that you have allowed a person, place or thing use and manipulate you to the point that you no longer know who you are and what you want out of life?  Have you ever woken up to realize how short life is and you only have the opportunity to live life once?

Well, on January 1, 2009, I woke up and realized that I had lost the two previous years of my life - 60-65 hours a week - given it to my employer for a paycheck in return.  Like selling your soul to the devil.  So, that very morning I started taking back my life and started my pilgrimage. By the time my pilgrimage was over I had ridden a bike across the United States (and found a new employer).  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Michelle Williams...

So begins the Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.  Harold is an typical Englishman.  He has woken up one morning and sat at his kitchen table eating breakfast just like every other morning.  His life is ordinary and he has spent more time trying to fade into the background than he has trying to be noticed.  His marriage and his relationship with his son seem to be failures.  He has allowed something to come between him and a good friend - allowing her to become "someone he used to know".  Then he receives a letter from this friend, Queenie, and his pilgrimage begins.

Harold's march across England is not much different that any adventure story.  He meets interesting characters and encounters obstacles including his own self doubt along the way. His pilgrimage not only gives him time to reflect on the past but it also allows his wife Maureen time to reflect on the past as well.  The result is a very heartwarming story of reconciliation, forgiveness and true love.

This book was an easy piece of literature.  The reader did not have to struggle with a complicated plot nor with trying to figure out the underlining history weaving its way through the book.  One need not google a phrase or refer back to a list of characters in order to keep the Thomases and the Henrys separated.  My co-conspirator at BookerMarks, Aaron (Opinionless), believed that the book was contrived and Ms. Joyce did not leave anything for the reader to figure out on his own  Indeed the reader did not have to think about anything while on the journey with Harold - unless they wanted to.  Does this make the book un-Booker worthy?  Yet, when a piece of literature can touch a persons inner being, making them stop to think about their own lives, their own past relationships, doesn't that make this book special?

So, what are the standards books should be judged by?  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a very good heartwarming story.  The question is - is it Booker worthy?  Stand this next to last years winner, Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending, and I would probably lean towards Harold Fry.  Stack it up next to Wolf Hall the 2009 winner - the two books are night and day different.  Wolf Hall wins on literary scope and style alone.  Stack this up against anything that David Mitchell wrote (Cloud Atlas and Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoit and the unfortunate Harold is left on the starting blocks. Can you give a book a score for readability and a score for literary greatness?  I will be recommending Harold to many people.  I will recommend it over Wolf Hall and The Sense of an Ending to most of the readers I know.  I give the book 5 stars for just being a good book that I enjoyed reading and a score of 3 for literary greatness - for an average score of 4.  Let us see how Harold stacks up against the other 11 long listed Booker nominees...