Yun Ling Teoh is an angry woman—and she has every right to be. The daughter of a wealthy ethnic Chinese family in Malaya, she and her beloved sister were taken prisoners by the Japanese during World War II. The camp where they were taken was typically miserable, but so obscure that even in her old age Yun Ling can’t find out where it was or what it was called. Her bitterness toward the Japanese remains relentless and even invigorating; in her career as a prosecutor and then a judge she’s sent a goodly number of Japanese war criminals to their deaths.
But Tan Twan Eng, author of The Gift of Rain, lets us know from the beginning that nothing in this tetchy, straight-talking woman’s life is uncomplicated. Yun Ling’s sister Yun Hong had a passion for Japanese gardens that was kindled by a family visit to Kyoto. When Yun Ling escapes from the camp, she vows to make one for her, despite her hatred of the Japanese. To do this she must apprentice herself to Aritomo, a mysterious Japanese gardener who once worked for the Emperor whose troops had brutalized her and her sister for sport.
Eng brings the same pleasing level of messiness to his new novel as he did to The Gift of Rain. In both cases the messiness is the result of war, which not only brings horror to the protagonists, but upends the societies in which they live and forces them to examine old beliefs and ways of life that were taken for granted. Once again, Eng transports the reader to a world that few people know about and reveals the complicated humanity of its inhabitants.