Tan Twan Eng has won the prestigious Man Asian Literary Prize for The Garden of Evening Mists, a novel that takes place in the aftermath of the Japanese occupation of Malaysia.
The Malaysian writer received the US$30,000 award at a black-tie dinner at the Peninsula Hotel last night. "This comes as a huge shock. I'm often asked how important literary prizes are and I can unashamedly say bloody important," he said. "I'm so pleased especially that Jane hasn't come all the way from London for nothing," he said, referring to his literary agent Jane Gregory.
The panel of three judges, chaired by British journalist and critic Maya Jaggi, said it was an extremely difficult decision to pick a winner from the five shortlisted books. The others were Indian author Jeet Thayil Narcopolis), Japanese writer Hiromi Kawakami (The Briefcase), Pakastani author Musharraf Farooqi ( Between Clay and Dust) and Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk (The Silent House). All attended the ceremony except Pamuk, whose shortlisted novel is 30 years old but was eligible for the prize because it was only translated into English last year.
It was not the first time Tan had been pitted against Thayil - both their books were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012.
The Garden of Evening Mists is a deftly woven novel exploring an unlikely friendship between the narrator, a retired Supreme Court judge and sole survivor of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, and a Japanese gardener. The pace is slow, the landscape lush and while it falls into the historical fiction genre, it's also a thriller.
"Some books can be good at achieving one or two things, but this one works on so many levels and layers," said Jaggi, adding it was a book driven by mystery. The other two judges were Indian novelist Vikram Chandra and Vietnamese-American author Monique Truong. Chandra commended the novel's structure and the way it mirrored the central metaphor of the garden, while Truong made special mention of the beautiful language.
When the prize was first awarded in 2007 it was for an as-yet unpublished book. In 2010 it became a prize for the best novel by an Asian writer either written in, or translated into, English. Since then, the number of entries has soared - from 54 in 2010 to 108 this year. Last year it was won by Korean author Shin Kyung-sook for Please Look After Mom. After six years, it was the last time the Man Group sponsored the prize. Board chairman Professor David Parker said a new sponsor would be announced next month.