Book Review: The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Publisher: Myrmidon
Selected Edition: Paperback
ISBN: 978 1 78211 017 0
Published: 2012
No. of Pages: 348
Price: £6.99


The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng came as a breath of fresh air. I feel like my mind had been clouded, over-populated by reading submissions at work, many of which just could not hold my attention. And then I started to read this, the Man Booker Prize Shortlisted second novel of Malaysian writer Tan Twan Eng…

The prose is beautiful from the first page until the last, sweeping the reader up into the Cameron Highlands, an area of Malaysia (known as Malaya in the time the novel is set) filled with tea plantations and forbidding jungle. Teoh Yun Ling, a recently retired judge, returns to Yugiri, the garden owned and crafted by the former gardener to the Emperor of Japan, Nakamura Aritomo. During the Second World War, and the Japanese occupation of Malaya, Yun Ling had been captured by the Japanese and held in a labour camp along with her sister Yun Hong. Yun Hong does not survive, and her memory and the love that she had for Japanese gardens drives Yun Ling to Yugiri, as she wants Aritomo to design a garden in honour of her sister. The book flashes back and forth between the present day and the past, Yun Ling’s return to Yugiri, and the first time she was there and how she became Aritomo’s apprentice.

Parts of the novel recalled Kakuzo Okakuro’s The Book of Tea – the Japanese traditions aligned with tea, aesthetics, and the culture of honour and respect. I would recommend reading it alongside as I feel like having read it that I appreciate The Garden of Evening Mists even more. There is so much in the novel to learn – Japanese gardening, shakkei (a technique used in gardening translating to ‘borrowed scenery’), the history of Malaya, the Japanese Occupation, ukiyo-e (the art of using wooden blocks for imprinting pictures), horimono Japanese tattoos, as well as the Malayan Emergency. I love it when a book opens up so much knowledge to the reader, makes it accessible and it is written so beautifully by Tan that it doesn’t feel like a lesson at all.

Image taken from Horimono Tumblr

I took so many notes whilst reading this, it seemed that on every second page there was a phrase or paragraph that I wanted to remember. There are some interesting meditations on memory:

‘Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movements of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals up the gap, and the world is in shadows again.’

Yun Ling is writing her memories down and asks what humans would be without memory, considering herself to be a product of her past experiences, ‘an echo of a sound made a lifetime ago‘. These are just small examples of writing that I found both beautiful and sorrowful throughout.

I loved the poetic speech of Aritomo, almost like he is a philosopher and everything he says is weighted. I wish I could speak like that, or even write like that. I think I have some wisdom to amass first somehow… Everything about him speaks of calm and it is interesting to see him as an emblem of Japan, when the thoughts of Japanese cruelty during the war are in the back of your mind. This is what Yun Ling struggles with too, her respect for Aritomo that cannot live alongside her hatred for what was inflicted on her and her sister by the Japanese. As ever, the difference between the individual and society need to be underlined, with characters who did terrible things in the past and spend the rest of their lives searching for atonement.

There are some horrific scenes described in the novel but despite this nothing felt quite so sickening to me as when Yun Ling recounted her time spent in the Japanese labour camp. I think it’s because she has been suppressing it throughout her life, and indeed throughout the novel until that point, that she protects herself and the reader from the painful memories and when they are finally revealed the blow hits hard. Is it not terrible what people can do to each other, what pain they can inflict? Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to be in the time and place I am, something that was close to my mind as I finished reading the novel on Remembrance Sunday.

Off the back of this, and how much I enjoyed it, my Dad has recommended A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute which is about a group of Australian women captured by the Japanese during the Second World War – one to add to my wish list!

What did other people of make of The Garden of Evening Mists? Here are links to other bloggers’ reviews:

Alex in Leeds
Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
Winstonsdad’s Blog

After reading this, I would really love to read his Twan’s first novel, The Gift of Rain. Read Claire’s review of the book over at her blog Word by Word.

A new imprint of The Garden of Evening Mists will be co-published by Myrmidon and Canongate in March 2013.


Filed under Book Reviews

2 responses to “Book Review: The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

  1. Col

    I finished this just before Christmas and have still to write a review – but I agree with everything you’ve written. I thought it was the most beautifully written book and I absolutely loved it. It was my favourite of all the Booker short listed books I read – even better than Hilary Mantel for me!

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