The Garden of Evening Mists
Tan Twan Eng
I have a new favourite writer: Malaysia’s Tan Twan Eng.
Such revelation came to me very early into my reading of Tan’s spellbinding novel, “The Garden of Evening Mists”. It took me only the first six pages to recognize what a true gem I had in my hands. I was immediately hooked on it, and feeling dizzy, Tan took me on a journey to the magical and mysterious setting of the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia.
The book centers on Yun Ling Teoh, a former Japanese prisoner of war, who has become a top Malaysian judge. Yun Ling is suffering from a gradual loss of memory. And in her efforts to fight this disease, she travels back to the place of her childhood. A place where she experienced many life-changing events. A place of violence, anger, hatred, betrayal, guilt, and sadness, yet one that is also capable of victory, perseverance, truth, peace, and joy. A place where she lost love, loved ones, and almost her live. Where dreams shadow living nightmares, and nightmares end live-long dreams.
The Garden of Evening Mists—and the surrounding backdrop of Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands—is where Yun Ling’s life intertwined with those of the other fascinating characters in the book. There is Yun Hong, Yun Ling’s sister, who disappeared like many other “guests of the Sun Emperor”. There is Magnus Praetorius, the Transvaal adventurer who fled his homeland to build a new one in Malaysia, in the form of the Majuba Tea Estate. There is also Tatsuji, a Japanese historian and former Kamikaze pilot, who lived to see the end of the World War II because of the sacrifice of his lover and commanding officer.
And then, there is Aritomo, the Japanese Emperor’s former gardener. He designed the Garden of Evening Mists, and in him, Yun Ling finds solace from the trauma of her imprisonment. Aritomo is the embodiment of the novel’s misty mystery. He is not only a master gardener, but also an artist capable of expressing fleeting beauty and impermanence. And as the story builds up, Yun Ling discovers clues associating Aritomo with Japan’s conquest of Malaya.
The book also tells Malaysia’s tumultuous history. From the Japanese invasion, and subsequent conquest, to the Malayan Emergency period, when the communists were bent on challenging not only the British rulers, but also other Malaysians (their own people) who could cross in their paths. The book talks about Japanese war treasures, the Chinese community in Malaysia, and the marginalization of local indigenous tribes. It also talks about the country’s capacity to heal from its deep historical wounds.
All in all, the book evolves around the role of memory in human existence, and the relationship between memory and forgetting.
What I find most enjoyable about this book is Tan’s attention to detail. Not only that, but the way in which he crafts all the details into a string of beautiful sentences. A hand imprint on an oakwood table, visible for only seconds after the hand is pulled back. “The scent of pine resin sticking to the air, the bamboo creaking and knocking in the breeze, the broken mosaic of sunlight scattered over the ground.” Memories, like sandbar, cut off from the shore by the incoming tide, slowly becoming submerged, no longer there.
The book won the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize. It was also shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Indeed, these awards are merely indicative of the public’s reception. But somehow, even these awards are incapable of describing the feelings and sensations that overwhelmed me during my many moments with this book.