The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
Weinstein Books, New York, 2012
Borrowed from my public library. Short-listed for the 2012 Booker Prize.
In Kuala Lampor, Supreme Court judge Yun Ling Teoh has been slowly loosing her mind. Wary of her malady becoming evident to others, she takes early retirement and returns to a tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands, owned by family friends. 36 years before, having been released from a Japanese prison camp, she had spent time there. Traumatised by her sister’s death in the camp and wishing to design a Japanese style garden as a memorial, she is introduced to Aritomo Nakamura, who was once the gardener to the Japanese Emperor. She asks him to build a garden for her sister. He refuses, but says he will take her on as an apprentice. Yun Ling hates the Japanese, but her desire to design a garden in memory of her sister forces her through that hatred. She stays, and learns to garden.
It is the tangle of history between the Chinese, Japanese, British and Malaysian people, as well as the relationship that grows between Yun Ling and Aritomo, that forms the base of this complex and beautifully written story. Woven throughout is the history of the land and its people. Tamn Twan Eng has written a puzzle box of a novel that, in the end, forces us to question our ideas about memory.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
Little Brown and Company, New York 2012
Borrowed from my library. Nominated for the National Book Award.
Kevin Powers is an Iraq veteran and a poet. His novel about two young friends fighting together in the second Iraq war is beautifully written. It is also devastating.
At basic training John Bartle takes Daniel Murphy under his wing and makes a promise to Murph’s mother. When they reach the city of Al Tafar, John realizes that the promise may be impossible to keep.
We hardly noticed a change when September came. But I know now that everything that will ever matter in my life began then. Perhaps light came a little more slowly to the city of Al Tafar, falling the way it did beyond thin shapes of rooflines and angled promenaded in the dark. It fell over buildings in the city , white and tan, made of clay bricks, roofed with corrugated metal or concrete. The sky was vast and catacombed with clouds. A cool breeze blew down from the distant hillsides we’d been patrolling all year. It passed over the minarets that rose above the citadel, flowed down through alleys that ringed the city, and finally broke up against the scattered dwellings from which our rifles bristled. Our platoon moved around our rooftop position, gray streaks against the predawn light. It was still late summer then, a Sunday, I think. We waited. From pages 4/5.
Poetic, lyrical and deeply moving, this one will stay with me for a long time.
The Yellow Birds has been compared to All Quiet on the Western Front and The Things They Carried. It meets and matches them and also reminds me of the importance of reading other books on war. I would suggest Dispatches, On Killing and War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning as a place to start.
Shards by Ismet Prcic
Black Cat, New York, 2011
From my library hold list.
A young Bosnian, Ismet Prcic, has left his home, his family and his war-torn country to make a new life in Southern California. But it is not what he expects. When he hears a car backfire he dives for cover. He has flashbacks at the strangest times. He falls in love and misses his mother. He remembers the war.
Advised to write “everything” he builds a great pile of pieces, descriptions of his life, letters to his mother, memories of home, bits of the past and the present. And then Mustafa appears. Is he a construct, someone Ismet has created to distance himself from the war? Or is he real?
These are the shards that make up this unusual and disturbing novel. At time a difficult read because of the many bits and pieces, Shards is almost blinding, reflecting life in a war zone, life as an immigrant, and the sometimes mind-bending qualities of memory.