What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?
Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.
Tuesday, October 9, 2012
My Pick for the Booker: The Garden of Evening Mists
Later this week, the suspense will finally be at an end, and we'll know which of the half-dozen novels on this year's shortlist will win the Man Booker Prize. While I loved Hilary Mantel's sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, my favorite candidate has to be this nearly perfect novel by Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists. It's one of those rare novels to which I want to award a sixth star, just for reminding me that there is always something new to discover in the world of books, and that there are authors out there capable of crafting prose that I have to stop and savor every few pages.
When this novel opens, Yun Ling Teoh's professional career is ending; she is retiring after many years as a judge in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, a career that began when, in her early 20s, she joined the team prosecuting Japanese soldiers for the crimes they committed during the World War II occupation of the then-British colony of Malaya. As we soon realize, Yun Ling's life -- however successful she has been in her career -- essentially ended when, at the age of 17, she herself became one of those victims, and the sole survivor of a hidden camp in the Malayan jungle. Tan Twan Eng deftly steers the reader back and forth from the past to the "present" (the 1990s), as Yun Ling's experiences during the war and her later attempts to come to grips with them at the height of the Malayan "emergency" in 1951 (a Communist insurgency) are set in the context of her final attempt to bring about a kind of resolution.
At the heart of this story is the garden of the title. It was designed by a former gardener of Emperor Hirohito, a Japanese expatriate named Aritomo, whom Yun Ling seeks out after the end of the war, in 1951, to ask him to design a garden in memory of her sister, who died at the hands of the Japanese. Aritomo refuses -- but he agrees to accept her as an apprentice. In order to achieve her goal, Yun Ling must find a way to swallow her revulsion for Aritomo -- a Japanese, and moreover, one connected to the emperor himself -- and learn from him. While the garden itself, Yangiri, seems to be a place disconnected from time and space, it proves to be anything but, as the Emergency becomes more intense, martial law is enforced more stringently, and the terror-style tactics of the Communist guerillas threaten Yun Ling, whose recent legal cases have involved prosecutions of some captured leaders. All this is set against a much later narrative, as Yun Ling returns to Yangiri -- now her own property -- for the first time since the Emergency -- to finally address all her demons. By the novel's end, we have learned the answers to the questions that emerge gradually as the story unfolds; how Yun Ling came to be the only survivor from her camp; how she came to own Yangiri and why she has allowed a Japanese scholar to visit her now to study Aritomo's ukiyoe prints.
One of the elements that made this novel especially vivid for me was the fact that I had visited the Cameron Highlands, where it is set, in the 1980s, and was left stunned by its beauty (imagine, for a moment, seeing poinsettias growing wild against a backdrop of tree-covered mountains shrouded by a hazy mist) and fascinated by its history. It's the kind of landscape in which mystery and concealment are eminently possible; indeed, at one point, Eng introduces the reader in passing to one Jim Thompson, a former intelligence agent turned silk entrepreneur in Bangkok, who would later vanish while out on a Sunday walk in the same area. Eng captures the setting and the atmosphere of the various time periods in which he sets this novel, especially the Emergency, which he portrays mostly through the eyes of three different kinds of outsiders -- Aritomo, a Japanese; Yun Ling, member of the Straits Chinese minority (a privileged group) and Teoh family friend Magnus Praetorius, a South African Boer with little love for the British colonial rulers of Malaya.
Any attempt to describe this book is almost certain to be inadequate. To me it's the epitome of what a novel that wins the Booker should be: beautifully written (that's a given), with strong characters and a vivid setting, but, above all, a narrative that makes the reader stop, think, re-read, and stop to ponder once more. It has won a spot on my personal "top 100 books of all time" list, although I confess I haven't yet decided which book to kick off it to make room. Just read it. I can't imagine that you'll be disappointed. Although I will be if it fails to win the Booker, despite the fact that it has some tough competition this year.