The Lost Garden by Li Ang

“Although I spent so much of my life at Lotus Garden, it was only recently that I was deeply moved by the many wondrous scenes, a result of learning to observe the garden in its minute details. The world is filled with boundless mysteries and wonder; everything is possible and nothing is tenable.”

I really need to start writing down how I come across certain books. I can’t remember the exact details for this one, possibly that it came from a list of books in translation written by women. I definitely hadn’t heard of Li Ang before this. She is a Taiwanese writer, her real name is actually Shih Shu-tuan. And her major work is The Butcher’s Wife. Unfortunately my library only had this book of hers so I made do.

The main character in The Lost Garden is Zhu Yinghong, an only child, the last generation of an old family in Lucheng, Taiwan. The family’s home is known as Lotus Garden, a sprawling estate, very much the pride of the family, and which, in the prologue we are told is being opened to the public.

There are two important men in her life. One is her father, Zhu Zuyan, part of the old guard, who speaks to her in Japanese, calls her by her Japanese name Ayako, and was once arrested for dissent, then returned to his family due to his old age. He then devotes his life to photography and to his beloved garden – replacing foreign trees with native Taiwanese plants

The other man is Li Xigeng, a real estate mogul, filthy rich, powerful, materialistic, and fond of the seamy nightlife of Taiwan.

The contrast between the two men is stark, representative of the old vs new, culture and tradition vs development and modernisation. It’s a story full of symbolism.

The narrative moves from past to present and back again but what takes some getting used to is the occasional switch from third-person to first-person (from Yinghong’s POV). It can sometimes be a bit too jarring.

The Lost Garden would please plant lovers as Li Ang is adept at writing about the garden and all its wonders.

“Cape lilacs were overtaken by a blanket of misty white flowers in the spring, like a lost cloud pausing at the green leaves; it was the kind of mysterious illusion that could only be embodied by a string of lithe, tinkling notes plucked by the nimble fingers of a harpist.”

Despite having traveled to Taiwan a couple of times – once as a kid with my family (my father used to travel to Taipei for work quite often) and then once again about 12 years ago for my own work when I used to be a research assistant and was working on a project about creative clusters in Asia – I know pretty much nothing about Taiwan’s history. So to read in the translator’s note that this book, published in 1990 (3 years after martial law was lifted), was the first to re-create in fictional form the “White Terror Era”. I of course had to go google that and learnt to my surprise that martial law in Taiwan lasted for 38 years and some 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned during this time with around 4,000 executed.

It seems that the following books also feature the White Terror Era and if you’ve got any Taiwanese author recommendations, please let me know!

The Third Son – Julie Wu

The 228 Legacy – Jennifer J Chow

Green Island – Shawna Yang Ryan

I believe this book works for the Reading Women Challenge – about nature.

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