The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

>> Sunday, September 23, 2012

TITLE: The Garden of Evening Mists
AUTHOR: Tan Twan Eng

PAGES: 350

SETTING: Late 1950s and 1980s Malaysia
TYPE: Fiction

Malaya, 1951.
Yun Ling Teoh, the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle-fringed tea plantations of Cameron Highlands. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the emperor of Japan. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in memory of her sister, who died in the camp. Aritomo refuses but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice “until the monsoon comes.” Then she can design a garden for herself.

As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to the gardener and his art, while all around them a communist guerilla war rages. But the Garden of Evening Mists remains a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all?
The last couple of years I've read a few books off the Man Booker longlist and, except for the winners (which were both meh reads for me), I've loved them all. This year I've decided to read as many books from the long-list as I possibly can, and The Garden of Evening Mists was the only one my library had right there.

The narrator, Teoh Yun Ling, is a Chinese Malaysian woman who was sent to a POW camp by the Japanese during World War II. After the end of the war, she became a one of the country's top judges. When we meet her, it's the late 1980s and she's just announced her retirement. We soon find out Yun Ling has a condition which is starting to affect her memory more and more, and before her mind goes completely, she decides she wants to record her memories, both of that time and of events that took place in the late 1950s.

Yun Ling was the only survivor of that POW camp, and her sister was one of those who died there. Her sister's love of Japanese formal gardens was one of the things that sustained her in the camp, so, despite the resentment Yun Ling feels for anything related to that country, she is determined to fulfil her sister's wish for a memorial garden in that style.

In the late 50s, Yun Ling is a young judge who finds herself in trouble due to her strong opposition of some of the policies of the colonial British government. She decides to spend some time staying with friends in the Cameron Highlands, in central Malaysia, where she can approach their neighbour and former gardener to the Japanese Emperor, Nakamura Aritomo, to commission her sister's garden. Aritomo declines her business, instead proposing that Yun Ling become his apprentice and create the garden herself.

The relationship between Yun Ling and and Aritomo cautiously develops over the months, as she comes to terms with the events of the war and finds out more about Aritomo and why he's in Malaysia, and about what the mysterious POW camp she was in was really about. And all the while, the Malaysian Emergency is raging, with communist guerrillas rising against the state and the state brutally repressing them, and the fight is much closer in the central Highlands than it was in the city.

This was a book where I liked how the different individual elements were done: the author's treatment of the issue of forgiveness, Yun Ling's struggle to reconcile her resentment and her increasingly closer relationship with Aritomo, Aritomo's past, the Emergency, and overarching all that, the gardens. But all those elements didn't completely gel together in my mind. It might be a shortcoming on my part, rather than a flaw in the book, but I struggled to see the unifying theme. This wasn't a major issue in my enjoyment of the book, since I felt all the elements did work on their own, but having it all click together better would have made the difference between a book I thought was good and one I thought was fantastic.

Also, while for the most part the writing was evocative and lovely, I thought it sometimes crossed the line into overwritten and style won out over substance (even straying a few times into spiritual mumbo-jumbo). This meant that it was sometimes difficult to properly understand the characters, since the writing acted as a barrier.



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