Date Published: February 11, 2012
Genre: Historical Fiction; Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Book Summary: Malaya, 1949. After studying law at Cambrige and time spent helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals, Yun Ling Teoh, herself the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle fringed plantations of Northern Malaya where she grew up as a child. 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 Kuala Lumpur, 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 her sensei and his art while, outside the garden, the threat of murder and kidnapping from the guerrillas of the jungle hinterland increases with each passing day.
But The Garden of Evening Mists is also a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? Why is it that Yun Ling's friend and host Magnus Praetorius, seems to almost immune from the depredations of the Communists? What is the legend of 'Yamashita's Gold' and does it have any basis in fact? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all?
My Thoughts: Teoh Yun Ling is the narrator of The Garden of Evening Mists and a remarkable and fascinating woman. One of Malaysia’s first female Supreme Court Justices, she’s returned to Yugiri, the former home of Nakamura Aritomo the man from whom Yun Ling learned the art of Japanese garden and so much more thirty-six years ago. Yun Ling was a damaged, angry and guarded young woman when she first meets Aritomo. She’s in her late 20’s and staying at Majuba Tea House, the neighboring property, owned by Magnus Pretorius, a friend of her family. She visited Yugiri to ask Aritomo to build a Japanese garden as a memorial to sister, Teoh Yun Hong. Yun Ling approaches this task with trepidation because she detests all Japanese after she and her sister were held in a brutally violent Japanese internment camp during WWII. Yun Ling, tenacious and impetuous, was the only survivor of the camp. She believes Aritiomo must do as she asks because his people destroyed her family.
Tan Twan Eng’s prose is elegant and lyrical like poetry. His words are evocative, soft and gentle, enhancing the vivid descriptions of gardens and the mountain vistas of Malaysia. His writing style also stands in sharp contrast to the narrative sections in the book that recount, in detail, the brutality and violence of several wars discussed in the story. The Garden of Evening Mists is primarily a reflection of Yun Ling’s past life interspersed with chapters about her present life. She’s recently retired from her Justice position and is focusing on recording her memories. Yung Ling was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia and knows she will soon lose her memories and her voice. Yun Ling fears she will forget everything that‘s happened in her life so she retired earlier than planned to write down her memories and make the most of this time in her life.
Tan Twan Eng portrays in the first couple chapters the two very different Yun Ling’s encountered in the story. It’s only six years since she was freed from the camp when Yung Ling travels to Malaya. She’s all sharp corners with hard, prickly skin quick to anger and very defensive. She was working as a Judge in Kuala Lumpur, thanks to her father pulling some strings, when the government signed the Japanese Peace Treaty with Japan. Yun Ling became incensed and disparaged the government aloud every chance she had. She was fired. The Yun Ling who arrives in Yugiri thirty odd years later is a reserved, intelligent and confident woman who although concerned about her memory, seems at peace with herself. Yun Ling is a remarkable woman and it was wonderful to read as she grew into a mature, secure woman while apprenticing with Aritomo.
A main theme in the book is memory and, as Yun Ling, recalls moments of her life, she also considers the concept of ‘memory’ and how it shapes who you are, who you become, how it changes over time and the way in which memories can be both vague and dreamlike or so sharp and clear they feel manufactured not real. Tied in with memory here is the smaller theme of control. Yun Ling, as a young woman, was extremely anxious to control her own life, to follow her own desires and to be sure no one tells her how to live because she had no control while interned in the camp Yun Ling realizes as she grows and matures that, like memory, control can be elusive and you can only exercise so much control so much control over even your own life because life and people are always changing.
Yun Ling is besieged by memories of her time in the camp when she visits Yugiri. She wants to hate Aritomo. Although it’s been six years since WW II ended, her anger, pain and hatred are as powerful as when she lay in a hospital bed after the war Smells, sights, manners of behavior, words and so much more bring memories of those awful, frightening days in the camp back to her. Yun Ling recalls how her sisterdistracted them from the pain, torture and suffering by talking about the Japanese gardens she’d fallen in love with during a family trip to Japan. The girls used to design gardens together, taliing about how they would create them for hours. Yun Ling wants to honor her sister with a garden and is angered when Aritomo refuses to create one for her. But then he agrees to teach Yun Ling how to build one herself. Little does she realize that she will learn so much more than how to make a beautiful garden.
Tan Twan Eng displays, through Yun Ling and Aritomo, a remarkable understanding of people, their thoughts and emotions. During her time in Yugiri, Yun Ling comes to grips with the realization that the people around her have all been touched by war. She sees that, although their experiences with war may be different, it has deeply effected many people. Yun Ling learns that what’s important is what she does with her experience and memories of her time in the camp. She can chose to be bitter and angry or she can understand that not everyone is to blame and open her heart and mind to life. There are Japanese people who have suffered and carry the marks and pain of loss, too. Yun Ling learns to let go of her hatred, to redirect and forget her pain from this mysterious, quiet, and gentle Aritomo. He helps Yun Ling to come to terms with her suffering and loss through the principles of gardening and, as their relationship grows and they become close, she better understands herself and others.
Tan Twan Eng effectively compares memories and gardens. Memories grow and improve when nurtured but can only be shaped so much before they become distorted and fake. They often surprise us with the unearthing of forgotten secrets, with delightful surprises and unexpected twists. Yun Ling is surprised by how one memory will uncover things she’d forgotten about as she records her life. She also learns about the Art of Borrowed Scenery, shakkei, from Aritomo, the master of shakkei. An important concept in the story, shakkei is “taking elements and views from outside a garden and making them integral to his creation”. This concept translates into memories, too. It’s not uncommon for people to borrow from loved ones memories to fill in or create their own particularly when they’ve lost someone important to them or cannot return to a place they loved. In a way memories are also shaped and created, Yun Ling learns as she and Aritomo share some memories with each other.
Tan Twan Eng has written a quiet but powerful and complex book. It contains passages that are both beautiful and breath-taking, shocking and painful. It will make you think about your own life and experiences as well as the memories you have. This absorbing book is worth taking the time to savor and enjoy. I highly recommend it.
See Tan Twan Eng’s website
Thank you to Myrmidon for the opportunity to read and review The Garden of Evening Mists and for a copy of this book.