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.

23 Responses to “The Garden of the Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng”

  1. Alex Says:

    I’m going to Japan for two weeks at the end of April and was looking for some books about the country’s culture. I might just have a winner with this one, thanks!

    • sakura Says:

      Also some Murakami and Banana? I do recommend Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters too although it’s a big book:) I’m so jealous you are going to Japan!

  2. harvee Says:

    I would love to read this book and will be looking out for it. The setting and the history are interesting to me as is the story.

  3. JoV Says:

    Oh my goodness! A second book? I read The Gift of Rain in 2008 and I didn’t know this is out. I definitely want to read more about my country. Thanks for bringing it into my attention.

    • sakura Says:

      Have you also read Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory? It’s set around the same period too.

      • JoV Says:

        I did! I also read Map of the World but Harmony Silk Factory is a little better. I’m waiting either my library or Amazon to drop the price a little before I get it. I’m glad you like The Gift of Rain too! 🙂

  4. Caroline Says:

    Wonderful review. I have always been curious about this author, I love the titles of his books. You make it sound so fascinating and beautiful at the same time. I need to read it.

  5. nymeth Says:

    This sounds like a great read. I know nothing about the history of this region, and although this is fiction it sounds like it would teach me a few things.

  6. Violet Says:

    Ooh, you’ve piqued my interest with this wonderful post. The book really does sound fascinating. I shall have to investigate further.

    I have now idea how this comment will turn out, btw, it’s the first time I’ve logged into WP to comment…

    • sakura Says:

      It worked fine, Violet:) In some ways I may be a biased reader as I’m more emotionally attached to the subject matter. On the other hand, I am more critical towards mistakes…

  7. This sounds lovely, but as someone who knows little or nothing about the culture and history explored will I miss some of it?

    • sakura Says:

      I don’t think so. It’ll probably make you want to know more about that period. Tan only puts in what is necessary for the story, in a way, it’s rather zen-like. But I hope you do give it try!

  8. […] now it looks like I should add his second work Garden of the Evening Mists. Both Caribousmom and Chasing Bawa have good things to say about this novel about memory and the impact of war and nationalism on […]

  9. […] Chasingbawa: 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. […]

  10. It is such a beautiful book – as I’ve from South Africa, I feel I have this connection to the characters. Odd, I know. But the language and the prose and the characters – it’s all just a perfect marriage. I’m utterly smitten by this book and I hope it does exceedingly well – because it deserves it.

  11. itoeri Says:

    it was gripping. it had such a massive impact on me that i need some time to go on reading his first novel. actually, before that, i would need to reread this book.
    the beauty of human relationships, garden making and love for art was soothing. yet, the drastic historical environment at that time made the story very tense, tormenting at some parts with the recollection of the slave camp.
    as a whole, it was mysteriously fascinating and it left me with the reticent aching of the aging protagonist.

  12. itoeri Says:

    also.. i wish i could write like you! it’s an amazing post.

    • sakura Says:

      Ahaha, arigato Eriko! I really loved this book too. I think his story is so powerful precisely because he is so restrained in his writing. I was really struck by how he managed to write so sensitively about such a difficult subject.

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