Book review: The Garden of Evening Mists

Tan Twan EngThis is another enchanting novel by Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng. The Garden of Evening Mists focuses on the post-Second World War period in Malaya. The Japanese occupiers have gone and local communist fighters are challenging British rule. In the hills of the Cameron Highlands, next to a tea plantation, lies a delicate Japanese garden created by Nakamura Aritomo, a man who was once gardener to the Emperor of Japan. Decades later when Yun Ling Teoh retires as a Supreme Court judge in Kuala Lumpur, she re-visits the garden at Yugiri. This is her story.

In the 1950s Emergency, the people who lived in Malaya’s hill villages grew to fear the communists. Homes were raided and destroyed, people killed, women raped. This is the setting in which Yun Ling first visits Yugiri to ask Aritomo to build a traditional Japanese garden in memory of her sister Yun Hong. This is a novel about memory, things remembered and things denied, and about loyalty. Yun Ling’s loyalty to her sister who was killed in a Japanese labour camp and her guilt that she could have done more to save her, and loyalty to Arimoto who she loved and thought she knew.

Judge Teoh returns to Yugiri as an old woman approaching death, many years after Arimoto walked into the jungle and never returned. She is forced to relive her past when a historian arrives to assess Arimoto’s engravings. As she relives the years of her imprisonment at the hands of the Japanese, and the post-war years when she first worked at Yugiri’s garden, Judge Teoh questions her perceptions of the past. This time, there is no avoiding the truth.

Tan Twan Eng discusses big issues. He explores the moral dilemmas of war and peace after war, considering the murderous actions of the Japanese at war, the same Japanese who love traditional gardens and the rituals of archery. This novel is rich in history, both of the Japanese Occupation of Malaya, the labour camps, lost war treasure, and of the Emergency. The lush countryside is offset by the tales of horror and abuse told. As with Tan Twan Eng’s first novel, The Gift of Rain, the beauty of the setting is juxtaposed with cruelty and violence.

A deep, thought-provoking and at times difficult novel, the writing is beautiful.

The Garden of Evening Mists was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012, the winner that year was Hilary Mantel for Bring Up the Bodies. The Gift of Rain was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007. Read my review here.

Listen to Tan Twan Eng talk about gardening, remembering and forgetting, in this short film.

If you like this, try:-
‘The Aftermath’ by Rhidian Brook
‘Homeland’ by Clare Francis
‘The Book of Lies’ by Mary Horlock

‘The Garden of Evening Mists’ by Tan Twan Eng [UK: Canongate] Buy at Amazon

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