The Garden of Evening Mists is set in Malaya and is narrated by Teoh Yun Ling, a Straits Chinese woman who, at the beginning of the novel, has retired after a long and successful career as a Supreme Court Judge in Kuala Lumpur. Returning to the Cameron Highlands area of the Malayan Peninsula – a very special place for Yun Ling, being the site of both the garden of Yugiri (‘evening mists’) and her friends’ tea plantation, Majuba – she makes the decision to write her memoirs, even if that means remembering things she would rather forget.
In a series of flashbacks, we go back with Yun Ling to the 1950s, during a time of conflict known as the Malayan Emergency. This is when she first comes to Yugiri and meets its creator, Nakamura Aritomo, the former gardener to the Japanese emperor. Yun Ling hopes Aritomo will design a garden in memory of her sister but he refuses, offering instead to take her on as an apprentice so that she can learn how to do it herself. At first, she finds it difficult to be near Aritomo (she and her sister, Yun Hong, were both imprisoned in a Japanese camp during World War II) but as they work together in the garden Yun Ling slowly begins to come to terms with the traumas of her past.
This is the second novel by Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng and enjoyed a lot of success following its publication in 2012 – the book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won both the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Having now read it, I agree that it’s an excellent book and deserved its success. Until recently, I had very little knowledge of Malaya (or Malaysia as we now know it). Now I have read two books in two months (The Separation by Dinah Jefferies was the first) and I’m finding it a very interesting country to read about. The Garden of Evening Mists covers three different periods in the country’s history: the Japanese Occupation of the 1940s, the Emergency of the 1950s, and the more recent past, probably the 1980s, in which Malaysia is an independent country.
We wait a long time to hear what exactly happened to Yun Ling and Yun Hong in the Japanese camp, but we do find out eventually – although certain details continue to be withheld or only hinted at. It’s understandable as this is Yun Ling’s own story to tell and she can choose what to say and not to say; some memories may be too painful or uncomfortable to bring to the surface. It was the wartime sections of the book that I found the most gripping and emotional, however. I was particularly moved by the story told by Tatsuji, a Japanese art collector who visits Yun Ling in the present day, about Japan’s kamikaze pilots.
This is not just a book about war and suffering, though. Gardening, as you might have guessed from the title, also plays a big part in the story. Gardens are usually peaceful places to sit or to walk – and reading about gardens feels peaceful too. I don’t have a lot of interest in gardening myself but I was fascinated by the descriptions of Yugiri and the techniques used by Aritomo to create illusions of depth and distance. He puts so much thought into where to place every rock, every stone. As well as gardening, Aritomo is also a master of other art forms including woodcuts (ukiyo-e) and tattooing (horimono), and these were interesting to read about too. Other aspects of Japanese, Chinese and Malaysian culture are also covered in the novel, such as storytelling and mythology. But most of all, this is a book about memory: memory and the act of forgiving and forgetting.
There are so many ideas and themes packed into this wonderful novel and I’ve only managed to discuss a few of them here. I haven’t even mentioned how beautifully written it is and how cleverly it is structured. As I read, I wanted to go back and read earlier passages again because things were taking on more and more meaning as more layers were revealed. It’s that sort of book.
I read The Garden of Evening Mists as part of A More Diverse Universe hosted by Aarti of BookLust. The event doesn’t end until Saturday 27th September so there’s still time for you to join in.