The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng has a slow start so at first it seems a bit puzzling that it was longlisted for the Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. But as one reads on, other puzzles reveal themselves and then the nominations are not a puzzle at all.
The narrator is Yun Ling, torn between remembering and forgetting. She has spent most of her life trying to forget the cruelties of the Japanese Occupation of Malaya but is now desperate to bear witness to it because she has been diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease. From this unpromising beginning, Tan Twan Eng has woven a complex mystery that explores the possibilities of reconciliation and redemption and also the appropriation of aesthetics in other cultures.
Though I’ve never been to Japan, I’ve visited a number of Japanese gardens and I have to say that their artifice doesn’t appeal to me at all, but this is, apparently because I have not learned to interpret them properly. They embody all sorts of concepts such as the idea of ‘borrowed scenery’ and they are designed to make a visitor stop at certain points to absorb the serenity and appreciate the symbolism and so forth. It’s very difficult to explain the relevance of such concepts to the story without spoilers which would destroy the subtle cunning of this novel, so I’m not going to. The novel is constructed like one of these gardens and it only slowly reveals its secrets.
Consistent with Yun Ling’s memories, the story moves in and out of the past and the narrator’s tone shifts depending on her focus. When she tells us about her career as the first female judge in the postwar Malayan War Crimes Tribunals, her tone is flat and dull, as if she is trying to suppress emotion. As well she might, consigning numerous Japanese found guilty to capital punishment. When she tells us about her conflicted desire to build a memorial Japanese garden for her sister who died under the Occupation, her tone is anguished. Her thoughts of long-harboured hatred are contrasted with bitter scorn when, confronted by ‘The Association To Bring Home the Emperor’s Fallen’, she can no longer suppress her hatred.
Yun Ling’s experiences have made her a very complex character, but like all of us, she yearns for love and companionship. Scarred both physically and mentally by her time in the slave-labour camp, if she is to fulfil her promise to her dead sister, she has to forge a relationship with Aritomo, the enigmatic designer of a Japanese garden in the Cameron Highlands. But he refuses to create a memorial garden but takes her on as an apprentice instead, so that she is once again in a position of subservience to a Japanese. It is through these two characters that the journey towards reconciliation and redemption is explored, complicated by Yun Ling’s dawning realisation that Aritomo has suspicious secrets of his own.
As you might expect in a novel about the post-colonial experience, other characters have their own resentments too. The Straits Chinese are resented by the Malays, the ex Boer South African tea planter Magnus resents the British. And there are the Communist insurgents as well …
Although I enjoyed the novel, I found its fundamental premise unconvincing. Any Malayan appreciation of Japanese aesthetics in the context of its history under the Occupation seems unlikely, and the appropriation of Yun Ling herself as a symbol seems an artifice too great for the story to bear. Given the atrocities committed by the Japanese (and their steadfast refusal to apologise) the idea that a Japanese garden and its maker would be held in high esteem in the post-Occupation period seems fanciful. The notion that sisters in a Japanese slave labour camp would be able to transcend the brutality of their captivity by fantasising about the serenity of a Japanese garden rather than the lush landscapes of their own culture is bizarre.
Still, if such doubts are suspended, the novel works. The prose is captivating, and the storyline becomes increasingly compelling as the tale progresses. The Garden of Evening Mists deserves to be in contention for major prizes.
I have been over-careful about spoilers in this review because if I ever knew anything about this novel I had forgotten it by the time I came to read it, and part of the pleasure was the sinuous way secrets were concealed and revealed. So if you plan to read it soon, be careful with the reviews you read.
Matt Todd shares his extensive knowledge of Japanese culture in his review at A Novel Approach ,Stu at Winston’s Dad thought it was the ‘best book written in English this year’ and Kim at Reading Matters was quite right when she predicted I would enjoy it. There is a swag of other reviews at The Complete Review and one from an Asian perspective at The Asian Review of Books.
I read this book as a member of the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize jury. To read my reviews of other Man Asian Literary Prize nominations see here and to see reviews by other jurors, please visit the SMALP Jury Notes at Matt Todd’s A Novel Approach.
Author: Tan Twan Eng
Title: The Garden of Evening Mists
Publisher: W F Howes Ltd (Clipper) 2012
ISBN: 9781471216664 (Large print edition)
Source: Bayside Library
Fishpond: The Garden of Evening Mists