The Garden of the Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
21 March, 2012
Tan Twan Eng has been on my radar for quite a while now every since I first heard about The Gift of Rain a few years ago. And then I was lucky enough to attend a talk he gave at the Galle Literary Festival in 2011 and found him to be both eloquent and thoughtful. So naturally I was interested in his latest offering, The Garden of the Evening Mists, and was pleased to be invited to participate in the blog tour.
And what a book. As soon as I started reading, I felt that little pressure in my head that told me that this was a book I was going to love. The style of writing, the content, the balance was just right. And so it proved until the very last page.
The Garden of the Evening Mists centres around Yugiri, a garden in the highlands of Malaya created by Emperor Hirohito’s last gardener, Nakamura Aritomo. Several years after WWII, a young Straits Chinese woman arrives at Yugiri (which means evening mist in Japanese), intent on persuading Aritomo to create a Japanese garden in memory of her sister who had died in a Japanese slave camp during the war. Yun Ling, scarred, angry, traumatised and the sole survivor of her Japanese prison camp, soon becomes Aritomo’s apprentice and, through her stay with him, learns to overcome some of her trauma through the discipline of learning how to create a Japanese garden. Malaya is undergoing an upheaval as Chinese communists fight against their British colonial rulers and as the violence encroaches upon Yugiri and the neighbouring Majuba Tea Estate, Yun Ling must once again face her fear and guilt. Amidst the violence, Yugiri is a tranquil place of calm and as the garden is reborn, Yun Ling is awakened to the mystery of why Aritomo, exiled from his homeland, remains here.
One of the reasons why I was intrigued by this book was the subject matter. The tipping point before the birth of Malaysia, the atrocities commited by the Japanese and the brutal indifference of the British. And amidst that, a lone Japanese gardener with a suspicious past, an interest in ukiyoe and tattoos and a sudden wish to help a broken soul. The mixture of cultures and histories is one that I find very difficult to resist. Often if it touches upons cultures you are familiar with, you wait for a slip, a misunderstood explanation, but here, Tan’s research is spotless, his understanding of the Japanese and their culture beyond reproach (apart from the misspelling of the Japanese word for tattoo artist which should be horishi instead of horoshi). And he is able to shine a light onto their assault on Malaya with clarity and sympathy. It’s not an easy subject. And neither is the conflict between the Chinese and Malays during the years before Malaysian independence.
What Tan is so good at showing is that there is no country where there is only one perspective. Countries are a mixture of ideologies, cultures and languages. I love books that show this side of life and people and The Garden of the Evening Mists is just that. I was continuously impressed by the spare, beautiful writing. The characters retained enough mystery to keep you wanting to know more. And the story, well, it is heartbreakingly beautiful.
So now, I’ve picked up his first book, The Gift of Rain, just because I want to read more about this mixing of cultures which Tan is so adept in portraying.
I would like to thank the lovely people at Myrmidon Books who kindly sent me a copy of the book to review.