Book Reviews

Archive Review: The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

From Asia Literary Review No. 24, Summer 2012: Identity

Review by Kathleen Hwang

 

IN THE AFTERMATH of the Second World War and the end of Japan’s occupation of Malaysia, Teoh Yun Ling is desperately seeking her own peace. She harbours a deep anger towards the Japanese, who interned her for three years in a labour camp where she lost her youth, her innocence, her sister – and two fingers. She is angry also with herself, for having survived when her sister did not. Her maimed hand is a reminder of deeper scars. 

     The Teoh sisters were among thousands of civilians, many of them ethnic Chinese, rounded up on suspicion of resisting the Japanese occupation. At the war’s end Yun Ling, mysteriously, is the only survivor of her camp. 

     She narrates her own story; when we meet her she is an elderly woman recording her memories for fear of losing them. The tale begins when she is in her late twenties, after she has given up her job as a prosecutor, a role she performed for only a few years following the war. Even seeing war criminals sentenced to death and hanged did not relieve her torment.

     Her sister, ironically, had dreamed of having a Japanese garden, and Yun Ling decides to create one in her memory. Despite her hatred for the Japanese, she decides to approach Nakamura Aritomo, a former gardener to the Japanese emperor, known to her because his estate adjoins a tea plantation owned by a family friend. Aritomo refuses to build her garden, but offers to take her on as an apprentice; the offer – from a Japanese Imperial gardener to a Chinese woman – is unprecedented. 

     Yun Ling accepts the proposal after visiting Aritomo’s garden: ‘The silence here had a different quality; I felt I had been plumbed with weighted fishing line into a deeper, denser level of the ocean. I stood there, allowing the stillness to seep into me.’ She senses that this unusual arrangement may allow her to find the serenity she craves. 

     While this unlikely pair work together in Aritomo’s garden, often in silence, other wars rage around them: communist insurgents hide in the surrounding hills and target local planters and their families; Malayan na­tionalists continue to fight the British, who still rule the country; murders, suspicions and investigations intrude on the garden’s tranquillity. Yun Ling tries to ignore the danger, but she is a likely target of the communists; as a prosecutor she earned their hostility by handling a high-profile case against one of them. There are hints that perhaps the tea planter – or Aritomo – is protecting her by paying off the guerrillas. 

     Throughout, the narrative is adorned with evocative description. Tan Twan Eng guides the reader through the elegant Japanese garden, the nearby tea plantations and the lush green jungle with the mindfulness of a Zen walking meditation. He invites the reader to pause, to picture the striking effects of ‘borrowed scenery’ Aritomo has created, such as using a cut-out hedge to frame a distant hilltop; to imagine the sounds of the waterwheel, the fragrance of flowers and the textures of stones. Each feature is chosen and placed with precision and care. 

     Just as he unveils these lovely scenes, so Tan reveals his characters – slowly, and layer by layer. Both Yun Ling and Aritomo are solitary, secretive figures. As the story unfolds, we begin to wonder about Yun Ling. In her memoir, she hesitates to explain much of what happened in the internment camp, or to say why she was the sole survivor. We wonder also about Aritomo. 

 

Apparently he left Japan after disobeying the emperor. But had he really remained alienated from his compatriots and detached from the war?

     Similarities soon appear between these two aloof and reticent people, and we begin to understand their unexpected, reluctant attraction to one another: both have had to struggle to maintain their identity and integrity – the youthful Yun Ling in the face of coercion and cruelty in a labour camp; the older Aritomo amidst the rigid traditions and expectations imposed on him by Imperial Japan. Both, it becomes clear, live with the demons of betrayal and shame. 

     Other themes are woven delicately into the tale like emblems in an Oriental tapestry: the utter finality of loss; the counterpoint between memory and forgetting; the revelation of beauty through pain. But this is not a tale about repentance or closure. Aritomo never apologizes for what the Japanese did to Yun Ling, or for his own actions. Yun Ling remains stubbornly unforgiving of those who harmed her and her family. Some enigmas remain for the reader to ponder; however, in unexpected and curious ways, both discover something they never thought they would find in the Garden of Evening Mists. 

Tan Twan Eng was born in Penang and grew up in various places in Malaysia. He read law at the University of London and was employed by one of Kuala Lumpur’s most distinguished law firms.  He has a first dan ( first degree black belt) ranking in aikido, and champions the conservation of heritage buildings. His first novel The Gift of Rain, published by Myrmidon in 2007, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. He currently lives in Cape Town. The Garden of Evening Mists, released in 2012, is also published by Myrmidon. 

 

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