Mark Entwistle reviews the final two books on the shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize

Biik festival Scott Prize
Biik festival Scott Prize
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Reviews: The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng/The Streets by Anthony Quinn

In his new novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, author Tan Twan Eng quotes a Chinese proverb – “The palest ink will outlast the memory of men”.

The Streets Book Cover

The Streets Book Cover

I don’t know about outlasting the memory of men, but Eng’s lush and languorous prose, much like his native Malaysia itself, means The Garden of Evening Mists is guaranteed to linger a long, long time in the memory of the reader.

Short-listed for the Booker Prize and winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize, the novel is Eng’s second and comes five years after his stunning debut, The Gift of Rain.

As with his first work, the Japanese occupation of Eng’s homeland during the Second World War is the ever-present backdrop to the slowly-unfolding story of retired judge Teoh Yun Ling.

Ling has taken early retirement from her position high up in the country’s public service after being diagnosed with a condition which will eventually wipe away her memory and powers of language.

Before this happens she must resolve some unfinished business and so makes the journey to Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands and the house and garden, Yugiri, which she inherited from Aritomo, a former exiled gardener to the Emperor of Japan.

Eng uses a complex series of flashbacks to tell of the intriguing relationship between Ling and Aritomo.

What starts out as an uneasy acquaintance slowly evolves into one of apprenticeship, then love and, lastly, Ling becomes Aritomo’s final, living creation with a full-body tattoo known as horimono.

For those who love Japanese culture, Eng’s forensic research of gardens, tea ceremonies, tattooing and Zen will enthrall and delight readers.

Ultimately, The Garden of Evening Mists is a tale of remembering and forgetting. It will take a long time for the reader to forget this sumptuous, wonderful book.

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Author Anthony Quinn has managed to resurrect Victorian London, with all its poverty and privilege in his novel, The Streets.

Whether it be the big houses of the wealthy or the slums inhabited by poor, he describes this now long-gone world with poignancy and pin-sharp detail.

But it is not all doom and despair, with Quinn still managing to include elements of dark comedy and the possibility of love.

It is 1882, and the novel’s central character is David Wildeblood, a 21-year-old from Norfolk who arrives in London to start work at the offices of a famous man.

As an “inspector” for Henry Marchmont’s hugely successful weekly The Labouring Classes of London, his job is to investigate the notorious slum of Somers Town, near the new St Pancras Station, recording house by house the number of inhabitants, their occupations and standard of living.

By mapping the streets in this way, Marchmont intends to show the world the stark realities of poverty in its greatest city.

Wildeblood is befriended by Jo, a young coster, and his sister, Roma, and from them learns the ways of the hawkers and traders, sharpers and scavengers, magsmen and mobsmen who throng the teeming byways of Somers Town.

It is a place domained by the survival of the fittest, but one which could all be changed thanks to a radical plot by a cabal of prominent citizens.

What the Walter Scott Prize judges said…

“This novel is refreshingly different and contains a cornucopia of wonderful material and evocative descriptions, from opulent ballroom to appalling slum tenement. Anthony Quinn is an excellent writer, and themes of loss of identity and community are universally well-covered here.”