This is a superb read. Very hard to describe as the beauty of the story lies in the language and imagery used.
This is a second novel by Eng, a Malayan writer who lives in KL and Cape Town. Both those influences are strong in the book which is set in three time periods significant to Malayan history. The time before World War Two, during the war and the Emergency period which ended in July 1960.
Yun Ling is the main protagonist, we meet her in all three time frames as she tells us her story.
We know she was born into a privileged family, Straits Chinese, who were very supportive of the British in the time of the occupation. Then we hear of her horrendous time in a Japanese concentration camp after the invasion of Malaysia. Then she returns to the Cameron Highlands at the time of the Emergency and meets the Emperor's gardener who is creating a Japanese garden in the middle of the jungle. Here, Yung Ling's worlds collide as she comes to terms with the hatred she holds for those who abused her and killed so many Malays, and the respect she has for Aritomo, the exiled gardener.
And finally we meet Yun Ling as an old woman, returning to the Highlands after she retires from being a judge. She moves into Aritomo's dilapidated house and starts regenerating the garden and trying to make sense of her life.
There are a mix of characters we meet. The Majuba Tea Estate is owned by a South African family, a researcher arrives from Japan interested in the garden, the local Malay, the communist terrorists in the hills, the nuns in a mountain monastery.
The beauty of the language is mesmerising as Eng paints pictures of the mists, the Highlands, the jungle, tea pickers working in the early mornings... He inserts into the narrative things like the aesthetics of Japanese garden design, tattoos, art, life...
Well worth reading, beautiful.