I liked The Garden of Evening Mists. But liked – not loved. It’s certainly informative but, at times, blandly written – a seeming lack of emotive empathy creating too much of a distance to the events unfolding.
Set in 1980s Malaysia, The Garden of Evening Mists is a multilayered, multi-themed, culturally complex novel. It may be the story of recently retired Malaysian judge Teoh Yun Ling looking back over her (personal) life and trying to make sense of her experiences but it’s also the story of memory and forgetting, identity, nationalism and a sense of belonging.
In focussing on two particular time frames – the 1950s Malayan Emergency with the struggle for independence from British rule alongside events of the Second World War and the Japanese occupation of Malaya – the book is set against the backdrop of colonialism, insurgency and brutality. But, through its diversity of characters, The Garden of Evening Mists is much more complex than simply the story of occupation or colonialism.
Yun Ling is the only survivor of a brutal Japanese slave camp (her sister Yung Hong was murdered) and she spent several years at the start of her career post WWII prosecuting war criminals. Yet, in spite of her hatred of the Japanese, she travels to see Nakamura Aritomo to ask him to create a memorial garden for her sister. The exiled former gardener to Emperor Hirohito lives in the Cameron Highlands in Central Malaya. He refuses her request – but offers, instead, to take Yun Ling as an apprentice.
The Highlands are a stronghold of the communist insurgents – and the mainly European tea and rubber plantation owners are prime targets. Magnus Pretorius, a former business partner of Yun Ling’s father, runs a highly successful tea plantation and is friendly with Aritomo. It is the gardener who, to the best of his ability, protected Pretorius and his plantation workers during the Japanese occupation.
But now the (predominantly Chinese) communists are hiding in the forested highlands and British forces are ever present in the area – an irony not lost on the South African-born Pretorius, who lost most of his family in the Boer Wars.
As Yun Ling becomes more embroiled in the beauties of Japanese formal gardens and zen philosophy, so slowly the skin she has formed to protect herself from her past is peeled away.
Knowing little of Malayan history pre and post WWII makes The Garden of Evening Mists a fascinating novel – events may be fictional but the essence of the setting is not. But sadly, Twan Eng Tan’s writing is not always up to the themes. Descriptions at times seem laboured, clever for the sake of clever. And whilst short, Yun Ling’s recounting of her story in the slave camp is surprisingly sterile and uninvolving.
It’s Aritomo who is ultimately the most memorable – the gardener, the acclaimed ukiyo-e (wood block printing) artist and rumoured horimono (body art) practitioner. Not everything is what it seems.
The Garden of Evening Mists was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize but lost out to the juggernaut that is Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.