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The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

The Garden of Evening Mists - Tan Twan Eng

Sigh. I read the first chapter of this book and it made me reflect on our community of reviewers, both online and professional, and not in a good way. Not only does this book seem to be universally lauded as "beautifully written," even by people who disliked it, but it was even long-listed for the Booker prize. So of course I was expecting a, well, beautifully written literary novel.


Let's take a look at this so-called beautiful writing, shall we? Examples all come from the first chapter (17 pages):


“And there was something else in the envelope. Turning it over, a thin wooden stick, about five inches long, fell out onto my desk.”


“Entering Tanah Rata, the sight of the former Royal Army Hospital standing on a steep rise filled me with a sense of familiar disquiet.”


“Walking over to the mound of leaves, I grabbed a few handfuls and scattered them randomly over the lawn. Brushing off the bits of leaves sticking to my hands, I stepped away from the grass.”


The scenery described may be beautiful, but this writing is not. The writing is inelegant when it isn't downright clunky. A Booker contender? Seriously?


Meanwhile the flat first-person voice completely failed to inspire my interest in the narrator, even though it's a character type I might be expected to enjoy. This is a good example of why authors shouldn't use the first person unless it's really necessary; when the voice isn't strong, when no discernible personality seeps through, it only distances readers from the character. Character interactions also seem clunky, with everybody wanting to know about the narrator's Tragic Past.


I am trying to stick to a policy of quitting any book that inspires lengthy criticism after the first chapter, so this one is headed back to the library. And, fellow reviewers: please don't be afraid to criticize an author's writing style just because everyone else is calling it beautiful. Just because people say it doesn't mean it's true.