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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Lost Garden

Li Ang

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To purchase The Lost Garden

Title: The Lost Garden
Author: Li Ang
Genre: Novel
Written: 1991 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 240 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Lost Garden - US
The Lost Garden - UK
The Lost Garden - Canada
Le jardin des égarements - France
  • Chinese title: 迷園
  • Translated by Sylvia Li-chun Lin, with Howard Goldblatt

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Our Assessment:

B : compact but sweeping wide-angle look at post-World War II Taiwan

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Taipei Times . 30/7/2016 Bradley Winterton
TLS . 11/1/2017 Francesca Rhydderch

  From the Reviews:
  • "Taiwan can be seen as the symbolic subject of The Lost Garden as well as its location. (...) This, in other words, is a knowing and astute novel that doesn’t fall back on feminist platitudes or uncomplicated political ideas. It may not have the blunt force that was so characteristic of The Butcher’s Wife, but it doesn’t deserve to have waited quite so long for an English translation either." - Bradley Winterton, Taipei Times

  • "While there is a distracting, stilted flatness to the portrait of her courtship, which dominates the novel, The Lost Garden is a distinctive contribution to the literature of place, and its translation into English gives welcome access to a country and culture often obscured by its neighbours, China and Japan." - Francesca Rhydderch, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Lost Garden centers on Zhu Yinghong, last in line, more or less (she's the last one remaining in the (Taiwanese) fold), of a: "famed gentry family from Lucheng", a family that has been established in what is now Taiwan for three hundred years. The garden of the title is the family Lotus Garden, the last precious legacy her father held onto, and which he spent many years resurrecting and renovating, but the novel's Prologue already reveals the closing act: adult Yinghong turning it over to the public.
       The novel sweeps back and forth across time -- pendulum-like, almost, as the novel proper begins by recounting an anecdote about Yinghong as third-grader (which is repeatedly referred to throughout the novel) which already suggests she has never had a precise sense of her time and age, and moving to a conclusion that doesn't come as a surprise (the opening of the garden to the public). While there is some sense of chronology, with Yinghong's life slowly unfolding in greater detail, there is also a constant looking and turning back, while some of the more significant later events and elements are also revealed out of sequence, early on.
       Two men dominate Yinghong's story -- one told predominantly in the third person, but occasionally shifting briefly to Yonghong's own voice. There is her father, who always calls her Ayako, her Japanese name, and generally speaks to her in Japanese, a clear symbol of the older generation (Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to the end of World War II) and representative of an old guard. Marginalized in modern Taiwan -- he was arrested ("I was guilty of being an intellectual, of being able to think, and not easily manipulated") and while he was freed, "my life was over" after that -- he devoted himself to hobbies such as photography, and to renovating the old family garden.
       The other man in Yonghong's life is Lin Xigeng, an enormously successful real estate tycoon -- representative of his times, and the rapid transformation of Taiwan from sleepy and poor backwater to a country in a modernizing (and, especially, construction) frenzy:

In the 1970s, when anything and everything was possible, he was a model of innovation and vitality; it seemed as though everything he put his hand to was a success.
       Xigeng also plays fast and loose with women. He's been married several times (and he and Yinghong eventually also marry) and has several children. And, like all businessmen, he partakes in that east Asian tradition of extensive wining and dining and carousing evenings, in the company of women who serve for the occasion: the Prologue-scene already describes such an evening, and there are many more throughout the book, with Yinghong sometimes roped in to play a role as well. If not solely decadent, there's certainly an element of degeneracy to such goings-on, having little to do with the business at hand and yet so central in the business-dealings of the day.
       These two men's lives aren't quite opposites, but they contrast sharply. Yinghong's father is representative of tradition and culture in decline -- even as he tries to hold onto a small part of it by crafting Lotus Garden so that it, at least, can stand as small symbol and microcosm. But it's no coincidence that in his renovation work he nearly burns the entire property down. He also fundamentally changes the garden: rather than relying on imported trees, he wants to build it anew with the flora native to Taiwan. Indeed, his project is one of national pride -- and, as he tells his daughter:
     Ayako, you must remember that Taiwan is not a copy or microcosm of any other place on earth. Taiwan is Taiwan, a beautiful island.
       Lotus Garden is meant to reflect that; her father's success in accomplishing that is also a reason Yinghong gives the garden over to the people, so that they too can see what Taiwan was and could be. Because, of course, construction-mogul Xigeng is responsible for a completely different kind of (re)construction of the island and its image, razing everything in his way and building up an entirely new country -- one transformed on the back of this construction-boom.
       The comparison extends to local locales, too: the Zhu family is from -- and Lotus Garden located in -- the fictional Lucheng:
Over a century earlier, the Zhu ancestor who completed the construction had hoped to look at the oean from high up on the hill. But silt gradually blocked and filled up the port of Lucheng, which, as a result, lost its former glory as the port of Taiwan for ships from the mainland. The one-time beach was transformed into mulberry fields. The reclaimed land pushed the shore farther and farther into the ocean, until the Zhu family no longer saw the ocean even from the Sea-gazing Tower in the north-west corner of the garden.
       Meanwhile, the modern construction business reshapes much of Taiwan, both physically and it terms of society more generally. Xigeng expertly rides this boom, but others can not. So also:
Unhinged from all other economic indexes, housing costs, like the continuously rising numbers on the electronic board at the stock market, turned into a nightmare for most residents of the island nation.
       Yinghong and Xigeng's relationship is a complicated one, passionate but unsteady. Even as they seem to believe they are destined for one another they separate and are involved with others. Li Ang describes the growing physical intimacy of their courtship at considerable length, and the complexities of sexual relationships in a conservative society are a significant aspect of the entire novel (as also in the role women play at and after those late-night business-outings); they also read somewhat awkwardly today, and not just because of the cultural differences (but then sex is almost always pretty hard to write).
       The Lost Garden is carefully structured, down to the repeated invocations of Yinghong's third-grade school essay, but still often feels fitful. Odd, too, is how Li Ang telescopes in and lingers on certain details, including some of the late-night business entertainment scenes, but barely even mentions what surely are significant chapters in Yinghong's life, such as her college years in Japan and then her time in the United States. But then the focus of the novel is entirely on Taiwan, and nothing beyond it seems to count -- as, for example, Yinghong's brothers (sent to get: "a clean, fresh start, without the entanglements and hindrances of the past" in Japan and the US) are essentially non-presences in the story -- and it is perhaps not suprising that among the most awkward episodes in the novel is a late one set in Los Angeles.
       There's a great deal of symbolism here, much of it quite overt, but in ranging so widely -- and especially beyond just the Lotus Garden -- Li Ang does present an interesting sweeping (if also somewhat lurching) picture of post-World War II Taiwan.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 December 2015

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The Lost Garden: Reviews: Li Ang:
  • Li Ang at Contemporary Chinese Writers
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Taiwanese author Li Ang (李昂) was born in 1952.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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