This book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and after three years of living in London, I learned to trust the nominations. You’ve got to respect a country that shows a book awards show in prime time. In any event, this is the first time I’ve felt let down.
To be fair, as those who know me are aware, I generally argue pretty strongly against the need for any historical context in preparation for reading the book. Instead, I think that the author should be able to weave in what’s integral to the plot and that even if I remain fuzzy on some details of the history, I should still be able to follow the story. This book definitely challenges that assumption. For starters, I am pretty sure I couldn’t even find Malaya on a map, much less explain its relationship with Japan, China, and England. (And Eng tries to, often in very unsubtle expository scenes.)
Still, there seemed to be some promise here – why everyone – notably the gardener Aritomo and Yun Ling have come to live in the same place. But they are revealed in such a cursory and sudden way as to make them anti-climactic.
I was none too thrilled with the characterization. Yun Ling seems too perfect; Aritomo, if the author’s last name was different, would be considered a stereotype.
And if all that wasn’t enough, the strands of the narrative move across different time periods, even within the same chapter, which made it very difficult to get any momentum going as I read it.