Beautifully crafted prose permeates the opening chapters. The story is set in Malaysia, where a judge is retiring, because she is beginning to suffer from dementia and memory loss. "For what is a person without memories? A ghost, trapped between worlds, without an identity, with no future, no past."
She wants to preserve her memories, or at least get them written down before she loses them. "A memory drifts by. I reach for it, as if I am snatching at a leaf spiralling down from a high branch. I have to. Who knows if it will ever come back to me again?"
She slowly unravels, in a meandering fashion, her relationship with Aritomo, the former head gardener to the Emperor of Japan, who helps her heal after suffering as a prisoner in a Japanese war camp in Malaysia. He teaches her the higher spiritual principles of gardening. "Everything planted and created in Yugiri has its distance, scale and space calculated in relation to what you see from here. This is the place where the first pebble breaks the surface of the water. Place the first stone properly and the others will follow its request. The effect expands through the whole garden. If you follow the stones' wishes, they will be happy....Only a third of each stone should be seen above the ground."
It reminded me of the principles of architecture described in A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander.
The middle third of the book loses some of the careful prose, and becomes a more muddled description of her experiences in the years of the Malayan Emergency from 1949-1960. The author seemed to struggle with his focus here. The story by this point felt like it was itself clouded in an evening mist. The judge's story was being stretched out, and she was almost luxuriating in self pity -- I wasn't feeling too sympathetic to her sometimes childish chippiness which just didn't seem authentic.
It picked up again during the last quarter but never quite again achieves the soaring promise of those first chapters.