The Garden of Evening Mists is an exquisite book. Author Tan Twan Eng is a gorgeous writer, giving us a sense of place, of mists on high hills and rain dripping off cold red maples in a formal, peaceful garden. He also seamlessly weaves in history and the prejudice that history lends its observers, crimes of ideology and war, art, and how traumatic events can leave scars that never heal, no matter how long one lives afterwards. This is a book that presents the human experience in all its highs and lows, sorrows and kindnesses.
The Garden of Evening Mists follows the life of Judge Teoh Yun Ling, and her life-long passion for Japanese gardening in spite of her ethnic background as Malay Chinese. This is odd because Japan invaded Malaysia during WWII and Yun Ling was indeed a “guest of the Emperor,” a euphemism for those who spent time in concentration camps. She escaped but with permanent injuries; her sister died.
The plot centers around a tea plantation in the mountains of Malaysia. Yun Ling first visits after the war, to see a friend of her family’s, Magnus Pretorius, a South African man with a Chinese wife. There she meets the exiled Japanese man who was gardener to the Emperor, now designing his own garden in the Malaysian highlands. She asks him to build a garden in memory of her sister and he refuses, but offers to take her on as an apprentice. She knows her concentration camp was somewhere in those same mountains, although that covers a vast territory and she has no idea where she was, and is in fact the camp’s only survivor. The gardener Aritomo is an elusive character, taciturn and hidden and comprised of many contradictions, yet she is drawn to him. In many ways he represents the two sides of Japan presented in the book: the beauty of art, formal gardens, strict discipline, and the horror and brutality of their invading armies.
Now she’s back at the tea plantation for the first time in years, struggling to deal with her memories of the war, her relationship with Aritomo, and her growing ill health. The narrative moves back and forth in time, from WWII, through the following years when Malaysia was riven with ethnic strife, to the “modern” 1980s, when Yun Ling retires and go backs to visit and to meet with a Japanese man who wants access to Aritomo’s artwork and famous wood-block prints.
The Garden of Evening Mists is a gorgeous book, haunting and evocative, harmonic and beautiful yet full of sorrow. As Yun Ling comes to grips with her memories of the concentration camp, her escape, and the truth behind her friend’s activities, she finds a kind of peace. Highly, highly recommended.
Elizabeth loves books that teach her history and human experience yet show her beauty as well. Learn more at her blog Planet Nomad.