For the past few decades, most new books I’ve read have been written by women. There have been, of course, the occasional exception, e.g., Charles Frazer’s Cold Mountain, Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast, and more recently, Edmund DeWaal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. A month or so ago, I googled “novels about gardens” to get some help making up my 6-month list of books to teach at the University of Minnesota Arboretum. One title intrigued me, though its author was entirely unknown to me. The book was The Garden of Evening Mists and its author was one Tan Twan Eng.
Born in Penang, on the Malaysian Peninsula, in 1972, Eng studied law at the University of London and worked as an advocate and solicitor in Kuala Lumpur until he decided to write full time. His first novel, The Gift of Rain (2007), was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and his second, The Garden of Evening Mists (2012), was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and has helped him win the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2013.
What draws me to him is not the awards but his writing style. I’ve recently concluded that so-called contemporary fiction does not appeal to me, so stumbling upon Eng has been nothing short of a pure gift. He trusts language to work its magic through metaphor and through subtly constructed sentences that carry weight as well as content. Because his cultural roots are Asian, those metaphors fall with incredible freshness and surprise on my literary ears, often causing me to stay reading way past my usual turn-off-the-lights time.
The other reason I am so drawn to author Eng centers on his historical context. He writes about the interplay of Chinese, Japanese, and Malaysian cultures in the 1930s, during World War II, and in the decades after that war came to its violent and merciless ending by this country’s dropping two atomic bombs on Japanese cities. Eng’s characters clash in terms of politics and quests for military dominance; they hate each other’s countries and tactics but find themselves becoming attached to and then incredibly intimate with a particular member of the opposing country. We readers then must suspend any simple ideas of good and evil as we watch relationships build and flourish between putative “enemies.” There is no romanticization in the name of love, however. Rather, Eng limns every painful consequence—to the characters themselves, to their families, to their very deepest belief systems—accruing from culturally forbidden intimacy.
In the end of each powerful novel, love triumphs but not by anyone’s living happily ever after. Indeed, the kind of love that outlasts the human cost of warfare isn’t romantic love at all, but a much deeper embracing of otherness as being indistinguishable from one’s self. So, if you are looking around for reading that will leave you thinking differently than when you began doing it even as it freshens your appreciation of words woven into often stunning sentences, Tan Twan Eng is your man.