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The Garden of the Evening Mist, by Tan Twan Eng.

December 31, 2012

The Garden of the Evening Mist, by Tan Twan Eng.  Westeien Books, 2012.

An exquisite novel flowing around a mysterious Japanese garden in the highlands of Malaysia and narrated by a Chinese woman scarred by her experiences in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II.  Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012.

Tan is a superb writer able to create a multi-layered novel involving the stories of diverse characters and spanning three time periods.  He has woven the stories told by his varied characters into a flowing mediation on gardening, memory, illusion and loss.  The narrator is Yun Ling, a Malaysian women of Chinese descent.  In the most recent layer of the story, health threats cause her to retire her judgeship and return to the plantation and Japanese garden in  the Malaysian highlands where she had lived for a time thirty years before.  Once there, she begins collecting her own memories.  Many of them deal with the earlier time when she had lived at the tea plantation of friends and worked with the Japanese gardener, Aritomo, the former gardener of the Emperor of Japan.   Although still bitter toward the Japanese, Ling had agreed to be his apprentice in order to create a garden honoring her sister who died when they were both imprisoned in a Japanese concentration camp.  As Yun Ling had  labored in the garden, she had calmed and healed.  Her relationship with the mysterious Aritomo had deepened in surprising ways. She dug more deeply into the past and told of her own scarring experiences in the camp.

The book Garden of the Evening Mists is itself like a Japanese garden. As in a garden, the reader is drawn along paths with hidden secrets and unexpected vistas  Tan‘s word choices also surprise, especially his unusual verbs (“the silence wedged between them”). His prose is lyrical and harbors mysteries. Such writing is in keeping with Tan’s explicit discussions of the resemblance between cultivating a garden and a memory and how both play with tricks of perception and “borrowed scenery”.

With all its mystery Tan’s book manages to inform readers in other parts of the world about his nation and how it was affected by World War II and the Communist uprisings that followed.  Knowing nothing of Malaysia during and after World War II, I needed the coaching to follow the story.  At times it seems as if World War II was the explosion that left  all the characters unable to forget what had happened to them. Tan also tells the histories of Japanese gardens and other Japanese arts and how tea came to be raised in the Malaysian highlands.

A native of Malaysia, Tan knows  its landscape and understands the country’s diverse peoples: Malay, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and British colonizers.  Unlike some male authors, he shows great understanding of his female leading character and other women in the book. He is a laudable example of how a good writer can transcend boundaries of gender and ethnicity and not trivialize or stereotype those who are different.

Tan’s prose is accessible, never experimental or overly dense, but this not a book for a causal reader. The questions and images are too complex. Tan does not simply identify the similarities of gardening and memory, he delicately probes the nature of each. Characters debate whether gardens should be be composed of native plants or show the order of a Japanese garden.  The historian researching Aritomo describes him as almost too perfect, “natural but controlled” like a Japanese garden.  We are left, as Yun Ling is, not always sure what is real and what is an illusion.

The Garden of Evening Mists is real literature and deserves to be read by all who care about universal, unanswerable questions about illusion and reality.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 31, 2012 2:00 pm

    I agree with you on highly recommending this book!

    I found it interesting that you commented on the male author doing a good job portraying a female character. I actually had a hard time at the beginning of the book remembering that Yun Ling was female and not male. I can’t quite put my finger on why though, beyond jumping to unfounded assumptions about the gender of high court justices. I enjoyed correcting my assumption on that. Your assessment makes me wonder whether it was just harder for me to get beyond my initial assumption than I would have thought.

    • January 1, 2013 8:07 pm

      I had the same problem but only for the first few pages. We just assume that a judge has to be a man! But I had no problem after that. I found it easy to believe that she was womanly but in an aged way. We don’t see as romantic till later on.

  2. January 1, 2013 12:01 pm

    I really want to read this book – I’ve heard such good things about it. Beautiful review, thank you, and definitely one to put on the list for 2013

    • January 1, 2013 8:12 pm

      Thanks. I really appreciate your compliments, because you write so well, but I suspect you always gave them to all your students as well.

      Do read this book. You are the kind of reader to appreciate all his layers and unanswered questions.


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