This beautiful historical novel is set in an exotic place, rural Malaya, after World War II before it became the country of Malaysia. It’s also one of the rare novels that is centered on a Japanese garden.
The narrator, Teoh Jun Ling, a woman of Straits Chinese heritage, has just retired from her career judging war criminal cases. Previous to that, she was a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp. In fact, she was the only person to survive; after being tortured there, she developed a great hatred for all things Japanese. Yet her dear sister, Yun Hong, who died at camp, always had a passion for Japanese gardens after she had visited the island nation as a child.
Yun Ling returns to the highlands to see old friends and also to visit the tea plantation of Yugiri where an ex-Japanese, Aritomo, has long worked a spectacular garden. Although she is repulsed at asking a favor from someone Japanese, she requests that Aritomo build a Japanese garden in her sister’s memory.
He adamantly refuses. But then a few days later suggests an alternative. If she is willing to serve as his apprentice, he will teach her how to create her own.