I like to read classics, historical fiction and world lit. Oh and I love short stories.
A highly enjoyable historical novel set in the 1940's and 1950's in Malaya (nowadays Malaysia).
The story takes place against the backdrop of the unrest, war and occupation in the 1940's and 1950's and it craftily takes you through the events and touches upon some very interesting themes: the experiences of South-East Asian peoples under the Japanese occupation, the great ethnic complexity of Malaya and the tensions and frictions that resulted of it (refreshing, as most Western lit pretends there are only two kinds of Asians in the period of the Pacific war: Japanese and non-Japanese).
Eng really knows how to evoke the highland sceneries: the jungle, the tea estate, the Japanese garden are all conjured up with wonderful imagery. However, the conversations and lines of thought were at times oddly cut short and the change to a different topic abrupt, making the story at times a bit of a bumpy ride.
The novel relies heavily on the plot, with the characters remaining without much depth. However, the twists and turns in the story kept me entertained and the characters were likeable.
There are, unfortunately quite some issues I had with the main character, miss Teoh. Her character was extremely disappointing; flat, underdeveloped and no exploration of her emotions nor her struggles with her traumas from the camps. We don't know what she likes, what she dislikes, what she wants.... Even if one argues that her traumas are so overpowering after the Japanese occupation that she doesn't have a personality outside of her traumatic experiences (ouch), there still isn't even a hint as to the person she was before. Everybody has dreams. What were hers? Her sister, who gets next-to-no screen time feels more real than her because we know she loves to paint and is fascinated by Japanese gardens.
After I read the book, I was surprised to learn it was shortlisted for the Booker (I somehow completely missed it written on the cover of my edition...). This is a highly enjoyable historical novel, but it's not Booker material. So I'm glad I didn't know it was a Booker nominee before, as I would have had higher expectations for the character development, which would have left me very disappointed.