As a teenager, Yun Ling lived through the horrors of the Japanese invasion, enduring the war years in a ghastly prison camp with her sister, Yun Hong, who despite the awful cruelty of the Japanese soldiers, developed a passion for Japanese gardens. Even as a prisoner, Yun Hong is quick to point out that the sensibility that created these amazing gardens is a universe away from the monsters running their camp.
In the Cameron Highlands just after the war, Yun Ling reconnects with old family friends Magnus, a Boer who hails from South Africa, and his Chinese wife, Emily. Magnus’s tea plantation is a quiet oasis of culture and art. He and his wife live beautifully, from the beverages Magnus prepares every morning to the recorded classical music he plays every night. He’s kind to his employees and is a good friend and neighbor. But you suspect his days are numbered, because communists continually roam the countryside, massacring Europeans.
Yun Ling hopes to create a Japanese garden in memory of her sister, who did not survive the camp, and tells Magnus of her intention. He directs her to his neighbor, Aritomo Nakamura, the owner of the only Japanese garden in Malaya and once a gardener to the emperor. Yun Ling hates the Japanese at this time in her life, but we know from the opening chapters that, decades later, she will tell a friend: “I’m losing my ability to read and write, to understand language, any language. In a year — perhaps more, probably less — I won’t be able to express my thoughts. . . . My mental competence will deteriorate. Dementia will shortly follow, unhinging my mind.” So all the hatred, and love, she feels will be rendered moot.
In an extended flashback, we see her working as an apprentice to Aritomo. Despite her hatred and his own hidden stories, they fall in love. Other stories entwine with this romance. Almost no one is what he or she seems. An art historian turns out to have been a kamikaze pilot unable to carry out his mission. Several characters seem to have been involved in a plan to rob Asia of its fine art. There’s a world of difference between Magnus’s peaceful plantation and the guerrilla war raging around and through it. And yet another universe separates life and art.
The Japanese stole fine art throughout the Pacific theater during the war; where is that art now? What was Aritomo doing during that time? Why do the Japanese excel at wood-block prints, and why has tattooing, no matter how elaborate, historically been frowned upon in that country? For that matter, what did Yun Ling do to survive during the war, and how did Magnus participate in the conflict?
Tan Twan Eng’s tentative answers to all these conundrums turn out to be quite beautiful. This novel uses fine art as its major theme and, in the process, becomes a work of fine art itself.
See regularly reviews books for the Washington Post.