The unexpected relationship between a war-scarred woman and an exiled gardener leads to a journey through remorse to a kind of peace.
After a notable debut, Eng (The Gift of Rain, 2008) returns to the landscape of his origins with a poetic, compassionate, sorrowful novel set in the aftermath of World War II in Malaya, where the conflict was followed by a bloody guerilla war of independence. Chinese-Malayan Judge Teoh Yun Ling, who witnessed these events when younger, has been diagnosed with aphasia, which will shortly strip her of her mind and memory. So she returns to Yugiri, in the mountains, to record her memories of the place she visited 34 years earlier to persuade ex-Imperial Japanese gardener Aritomo to make a garden in memory of her sister. The sisters had spent four years in a horrific Japanese slave labor camp, sustained by memories of the gardens of Kyoto. Aritomo turns down Yun Ling’s request; instead she becomes his apprentice, then lover. Aritomo is an enigmatic figure, steeped in art and wisdom, perhaps also a spy. Only years later, when Yun Ling finally pieces together his last message to her, can she reconcile her grief and guilt as the sole survivor of the slave camp.
Grace and empathy infuse this melancholy landscape of complex loyalties enfolded by brutal history, creating a novel of peculiar, mysterious, tragic beauty.