Probably my best read of the year. Twan Eng returns in his second novel to Malaysia, initially in present times but interspersed with the period just after WWII ended, and the Malaysian Emergency reached its height. While the Communist guerrillas were carrying out a campaign of murder and terror against farmers, miners and villagers, the Malaysian Nationalists were simultaneously trying to wrest power from British Colonial authorities – a turbulent time. Interestingly, as a historical aside, apparently this is the only time that a guerrilla war was won by the authorities (i.e. the Brits) and not by the insurgents.
The book resonated with me for days after I had finished reading it, as I kept remembering incidents and characters from the complex and haunting tale. The main protagonist is a Chinese woman, who survives internment in a Japanese slave labour camp and ultimately goes on to qualify as a lawyer and became a Supreme Court Judge. This story would, on its own, form the basis of other lesser novels. But there are other equally strong characters in the tale. The person I found the most fascinating was the enigmatic Japanese Aritomo Nakamura, one-time gardener to the Emperor of Japan (pre-war) now resident in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, and architect of an exquisite Japanese style garden, on a remote hillside. Again, Aritomo’s story in the hands of a lesser novelist would have been a book on its own. As the book progresses we learn about Japanese archery as a meditation, we learn about the art of woodblock prints and the arcane practice of horimono which I found utterly fascinating, and which is an integral (and important) part of the story.
There’s a South African link in the story too. Aritomo’s neighbour is an ex-pat South African who emigrated to Malaya in the 1930s to become a tea-planter. Magnus, the tea-planter and his family are important characters in the unfolding story. As part of their story we get a chunk of South African history as well – but not an indigestible chunk.
Tan Twan Eng currently divides his time between Malaysia and Cape Town, South Africa, and I’ve had the privilege of hearing him speak about his first novel The Gift of Rain. He’s alarmingly well informed and articulate, and passionate about his home country, Malaysia.
Tan Twan Eng is such a versatile writer. His book contains the history of Malaysia, alongside a WWII mystery concerning looted treasure (which other novelists would have simply have written as a Raiders of the Lost Ark extravaganza, but TTE is way beyond such a facile approach) coupled with evocative descriptions of the jungle and tea-gardens, as well as tenderly romantic interludes – which, effortlessly, are beautiful and poetic without being artsy-fartsy or mawkish – whatever he’s doing he gets it just right.
I cannot recommend this book too highly. At the time of writing I learn that the book has made in onto the Booker Long List. It deserves to be on the Booker Short List and if it were up to me, I would award it the Man Booker Prize. However, given the MB Judges extraordinary predilection for choosing obscure, unreadable, very literary novels, my hopes are not too high. But enough of my griping. Read this book: it’s marvellous!