The Garden of Evening Mists is a novel I would unreservedly recommend to everyone, except readers who prefer to avoid difficult, disturbing topics, as a good portion of it deals with the brutality the Malayans had to suffer under the Japanese invasion during WWII. A fascinating story and exquisite writing carried me away and I both badly wanted to devour the whole thing in one fell swoop, while at the same time not wanting it to end. The story is told by Yun Ling Teoh, a woman of Chinese descent, born in Malaysia. When we meet her at the very start of the novel, she is poised to go into retirement two years early from her position as a justice of the peace. She is secretly suffering from a mysterious brain condition which threatens to strip her of the capacity for expressing herself or understanding language, and this prompts her to write her life story before she loses the ability to convey her memories. To take on this task, she has returned to a former residence in the Cameron Highlands, where the Garden of Evening Mists of the title lays in need of much repair.
In 1951, Yun Ling found herself to be the sole survivor of a Japanese internment camp and decided she wanted to create a Japanese garden in memory of her sister, who kept them both alive by retreating to an imaginary garden through the worst of the treatment they suffered while in captivity. We are not to learn till late in the story what circumstances led to the death of this beloved sister, but we know Yun Ling has decided to devote the rest of her life to honouring her memory. There is a Japanese gardener, Aritomo, living in the Highlands; he is the exiled former gardener of the emperor of Japan, whom Yun Ling approaches to ask him to create a garden for her sister. This she does despite her strong reservations; she has developed a visceral hatred for the Japanese after the treatment she suffered during the internment in camps which, according to what we know and what is told in the course of the novel, had a lot in common with the dehumanizing brutality the Nazi Germans showed in the concentration camps of Europe.
We learn that Aritomo didn’t accept to create this memorial garden, but offered instead to take her on as his apprentice, and Yun Ling accepted in hopes she would later be equipped to create that garden herself. The novel travels back and forth in time, from the present—with the aging Yun Ling telling her story and trying to get the long-neglected garden back into its original shape—to 1951, the year she worked on Aritomo’s ‘Garden of Evening Mists’. During that time, Communist rebels were terrorizing the land, and Yun Ling’s life was endangered as she had pronounced judgments to convict and deport some of these rebels. Eventually, she takes us back to the internment camp during the war, whose location has always remained a mystery, and where we know Yun Ling lost two fingers and her beloved sister. The Yun Ling of 1951 and the narrator of the ‘present’ incarnation (sometime in the 80s) is embittered by her experiences in the war and weighed down by hatred for her former tormentors, but her daily contact with the garden and Aritomo, and her wish to leave behind a legacy in her sister’s name, help her to revisit her past and try to cast it in a new light.
There are mysteries and complexities at the heart of the novel which are only revealed when Yun Ling the author is ready to unearth them. It is a visually lush experience, with exquisite writing which had me rewinding the audiobook constantly, just for the pleasure of ‘rereading’ sections filled with gorgeous imagery. In some rare cases when I’ve listened to an audiobook, I feel compelled to also buy the book in a print edition, and this is one such case. That being said, I was completely satisfied with the audiobook and found the narration by Anna Bentinck truly excellent. She has a facility with accents, which she renders in a subtle way, and also adjusted her voice so that it was easy to follow whether we were hearing the older, or the younger Yun Ling, situating us in time with no further markers. But I want to get a paperback copy of this novel so I can do something I never allow myself usually, which is to underline all the little moments of pure poetry so I may savour them at my own pace. This novel, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 would definitely have deserved to win, and might have done so if it hadn’t had the bad luck of being nominated in the same year as Hilary Mantel’s equally excellent Bring Up the Bodies. I’ll be looking out for whatever else Tan Twan Eng puts his hand to.
I should add that reading this story not very long after finishing Snow Falling on Cedars and watching the movie version of that novel last week, formed an interesting change of perspective; where Gutterson’s novel dealt with the discrimination Japanese Americans suffered during WWII and it’s aftermath, this book showed us the kinds of horrors the Japanese army inflicted on it’s victims during the same war. However, Tan Twan Eng, far from dwelling solely on these shameful events, also shows us a Japanese culture, and individuals within that culture, who are capable of great acts of beauty, and of mercy.