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[509] The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng

” The garden has to reach inside you. It should change your heart, sadden it, uplift it. It has to make you appreciate the impermanence of everything in life. That point in time just as the last leaf is about to drop, as the remaining petal is about to fall; that moment captures everything beautiful and sorrowful about life. ‘Mono no aware,’ the Japanese call it. ” (Ch.13, p.163)

Beautiful and multi-layered, The Garden of Evening Mists is woven together with history of the Pacific War and personal flashbacks. Yun Ling Teoh is the austere supreme court judge who retires two years early from the courtroom in Kuala Lumpur. Before approaching obliteration of her mind due to a medical condition, she returns to the tea bush-clad Cameron Highlands to attend to some unfinished business from 40 some years ago.

Are all of us the same, I wonder, navigating our lives by interpreting the silences between words spoken, analyzing the returning echoes of our memory in order to chart the terrain, in order to make sense of the world around us? (Ch.23, p.307)

What entails is a chronologically complex flashback of events after the Japanese occupation. Despite the Japanese surrender, much lawlessness and unrest encroach Malaya, as the Communist Terrorists take revenge on collaborators. The ethnic Chinese guerillas harass tea plantations with bloody raids. It was 1951. Self-exiled from imperial Japan after a dispute in which he would not compromise with his ideals, Nakamura Aritomo, once the emperor’s gardener, settles in the hilltops of Malaya and begins to build Yugiri, the Garden of Evening Mists. The garden, which borrows the ever-changing landscapes of weather, the mists, and surrounding landscapes, survives both the Japanese occupation and the CTs.

Into his quiet life comes Yun Ling, then 28 years old, the daughter of a wealthy Chinese Malaysian family and a researcher of the war crime tribunal. She is the sole survivor of a prisoner-of-war camp. Instead of building a garden to commemorate her sister who served as a jugan ianfu (female sex slave) and perished, Aritomo offers to teach her the art of Japanese garden for two years. “A half-hearted garden is not good enough for your sister.” (77) As he passes on his experience and talent for visual feints and ruses of shakkei, or borrowed scenery, a relationship beyond that of master and apprentice ensues. Yun Ling senses there is more than Aritomo wants to reveal about himself. He even helps protect the locals from the Kempeitai. He lobbies for the release of some jugan ianfus. Why does he choose to remain in Malaya after the war?

People think he went missing only once in his life, but I disagree. He did it twice. The first time was when he left Japan before the Pacific War started. No one knew where he went or what he did. (Ch.13, p.173)

Aritomo indeed is the embodiment of the novel’s elegant mystery. His garden cultivates formal harmony; it unmasks sophisticated artistry. In very elegant and contemplative prose, Tan Twan Eng shows how the Japanese garden reveals itself as a capacious symbol of the human soul, replete with exactly the kinds of “borrowed landscapes” we live with. This book is about fleeting beauty and impermanence, how our immediate experiences rather than painful memories may change our lives for good.

332 pp. Weinstein Books. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

7 Responses

  1. I just got this book but haven’t read it (so I skimmed this review… sorry). I currently live in a former Japanese colony and I have a bit of a fascination about the subject. Really looking forward to this one!

    • You’ll enjoy the complexity of the stories as Tan slowly unfolds them back in time. At times I feel he can speed things up, but the prose is very contemplative.

  2. […] [509] The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng […]

  3. I love the quote you chose to start this review.
    It really captures what I love about the book.

  4. […] Armistead at The Guardian, this book should have won the Booker! Vikzwrites is also a fan I liked Matt’s insights on the book too. It is my absolute favourite book of the year so […]

  5. PS I love your rating system!

  6. […] The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Note: Last name Eng) Probably the most complicated in terms of time and narrative layers. Set during the Japanese occupation, The Garden of Evening Mists follows young law graduate, Yun Ling Teoh, as she seeks solace among the plantations of the Cameron Highlands. Here she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the secretive Aritomo. Aritomo agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice “until the monsoon” so that she can design a garden in memorial to her sister. The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty This is a very engrossing read with sustaining revelations about a heroine—the chaperone—who discovers herself as she ages. The book gets better as Cora grows some backbone, talks straight, and truly seeks what she desires. As the novel returns to Wichita after a summer in New York City, where Cora reemerges with a potentially shocking (socially unforgiving) living arrangement that is way ahead of its time. This book is filled with insight about what constitutes family and rooted very firmly in love. Cora’s story obviously outshines that of Louse, whose Hollywood career flames out quickly and spirals into alcoholism and eventually poverty. The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni The characters in this book are all gritty and crisp, so emotionally realized as they walk right out of the pages. Sebastian is naive but not stupid, with a working vocabulary of a well-educated adult; Jared is sarcastic but aware of his lack of gratitude for a second chance in life. Nana and Janice both want to protect the boys from hurtful memories that they fear will impede their growth. Their flaws actually render them vulnerable but beautiful. The story is well-written, filled with flawless dialogue. Whether they’re realizing outrageous goals or just surviving another day, the book is a celebration of hope and the importance of love and family. Wish You Were Here by Stewart O’Nan This book follows the Maxwell family’s week-long summer vacation around Fourth of July. The summer has also marked a year since the death of Emily’s husband, Henry. She gathers her family by Lake Chautauqua in western New York for what will be their last vacation at the the summer cottage, which Emily plans to sell because she can no longer take it of it by herself. She also harbors a plan to help out her grownup children, who seem to be worse than she has suspected, with the money from the sale. In this beautiful novel O’Nan doesn’t devise much of a plot but he has painted a very vivid tableau of daily life. As he draws us into the tangle of jealousies, pent-up emotions, deep wounds and hurt feelings of the family, we read on less to find out what happens to the Maxwells than to become acquainted with the characters, whose life we can resonate with. […]

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