I came here to keep in touch with all my friends who left GR after the censorship debacle. I read a little of every genre. I co-blog at Musings of a Bibliomaniac.
(This is going to be a long review because I have too many things to say. I just hope it's coherent.)
Have you ever sat in a dark room listening to an intricate piece of music (like Sergey Rachmaninoff's 'Tears') and experienced a deep-seated sadness when the last note died off??
Reading The Garden of Evening Mists felt like that.
This book took me on a journey. It was turbulent and tranquil, beautiful and ugly - all at the same time - and when it was over, I found myself sitting by the window crying for reasons I cannot discern.
This is not a book for everyone, be warned. I've read some unflattering reviews and found myself agreeing with the points they make, yet I cannot give this anything less than 5. Eng has achieved a lot of super-ambitious things in 350 pages that many authors can only dream of doing, so I'm going to overlook the few flaws I encountered.
Giving a summary for this book is daunting. There are too many layers and too many interpretations. Instead, I'll tell you my version of what this book is about.
The Garden of Evening Mists is a book about conflicts, or more specifically, it's about the co-existence of antithetical things.
There's a scene where Yun Ling comes across the yin-yang symbol in Aritomo's garden, which describes how the positive and the negative are interrelated to each other. I feel this theme is manifested in the entire book.
---Remembering / Forgetting.---
When Yun Ling visits Yugiri for the first time, the garden is an escape - a place for forgetting the brutalities of war.
36 years later, when Yun Ling returns with a disease that threatens to rob her off her memories, Yugiri transforms into a temple of contemplation, a place for remembering.
(To remember when you want to forget and to forget when you want to remember... How ironic.)
---Peace / Violence---
There's something almost tangible about the stillness of Yugiri despite the guerrilla violence that's rife in the surrounding jungles. An amazing juxtaposition, if you ask me.
---The Beauty of Art / The Horrors of War---
This book could very well be a tribute to the arts of Japan. There's gardening, ukiyo-e (woodblock printing) and horimonos (tattooing). I found the cultural aspect mesmerizing.
A stark contrast to this is Yun Ling's recollection of her POW days - extremely disturbing.
Ultimately though, it's the art that stands out. I love how Eng treats it as a medium of healing, for both Yun Ling and (maybe) Aritomo.
---Love / Hate---
Yun Ling (understandably) harbors a lot of bitterness against the Japanese and yet she's drawn to the reclusive Japanese gardener. I suppose this is hypocritical behavior but I found the whole thing believable - probably because I was anticipating it. The relationship is alluded to but not explicitly spelled out (like many other things in the book), so you may miss it if you don't pay attention.
The book is slow, especially the first half. I prefer describing it as 'quiet'. There's not a lot of action happening but it still demands you pay attention, especially since Eng seems to love hinting at things rather than actually saying them.
Yun Ling comes across as emotionally detached sometimes but I think it works in her favor. The way I see it, Yun Ling is someone who has been through so much that she no longer has the capability to be emotionally fazed.
Aritomo is an enigma. The more you know about him, the more unknown he becomes.
Eng has crafted a beautiful story, but if you read this expecting to find answers, you'll be disappointed. The ending is... incomplete. There are a few facts, a few hints, but no answers. This is going to sound stupid, but I loved the unfinished ending. You see, every character in this book has had an unfulfilled life so it makes sense that the story would be unfulfilled as well. Like Yun Ling realizes in the end, sometimes its better to cherish what you know than chase after things you don't know.
And I've finally figured out what made me so sad about that ending. Something to do with the temporariness of time. Whether it's people or places or memories, time leaves everything behind, doesn't it??
The Garden of Evening Mists is not a book with universal appeal, but I loved the feel of it. Easily the best book I've read this year, and one I'll cherish for a long time to come.