The Garden of Evening Mists – Book Review

The imminent rain in the air smelt crisp and metallic, as though it had been seared by the lightning buried in the clouds. The scent reminded me of the time in the camp, when my mind had latched onto the smallest, most inconsequential thing to distract myself: a butterfly wafting from a patch of scrub, a spiderweb tethered to twigs by strands of silk, sieving the wind for insects. – from The Garden of Evening Mists, page 100 –

Teoh Yun Ling has retired from her profession as a judge and returned to the mountains of Malaya forty years after having been imprisoned by the Japanese during WWII. On the edge of the rain forest, beneath the mists of the mountain, and beside the rolling hills of a tea plantation she writes a story before her memory fades because Yun Ling has been diagnosed with a devastating illness, primary progressive aphasia, which will steal her memories and her language. Yun Ling’s story is a complex one. It is the story of captivity at the hands of brutal soldiers and the loss of her sister. It is about her desire to honor her sister’s memory with a garden crafted by the former gardener of the Emperor of Japan, a man named Nakamura Aritomo who is dignified, talented and mysterious. It is about the year she spends with Aritomo as his apprentice, physically laboring in his amazing garden as their relationship grows more intimate. It is about the impact of war – first the war in the Pacific, and then the Malayan Emergency. But most importantly, it is about finding oneself again, teasing through memories long buried and discovering the secrets that lie just below the surface.

He turned to me, touching the side of his head lightly. At that moment it struck me that he was similar to the boulders on which we had spent the entire morning working. Only a small portion was revealed to the world, the rest was buried deep within, hidden from view.  – from The Garden of Evening Mists, page 99 –

Tan Twan Eng’s second novel is an alluring one, filled with exquisite description of the Malayan countryside against the backdrop of violence.

The days here opened from beyond one set of mountains and ended behind another, and I came to think of Yugiri as a place lodged somewhere in a crease between daybreak and sunset. – from The Garden of Evening Mists, page 109 –

Yun Ling’s inner struggle to come to terms with the trauma (both physical and emotional) which she endured at the hands of the Japanese is illuminated through a narrative which moves back and forth in time between the 1940s when Yun Ling is a child, to 1950 when she returns to Malaya as a young adult, and many years later when Yun Ling is an older woman. Yun Ling’s voice carries the reader through several important historical events:

  • The Second Sino-Japanese War (July 7, 1937 – September 2, 1945)
  • The Japanese Invasion of Malaya (also called the Battle of Kota Bharu) which began December 8, 1941 (local Malaya time), before the attack on Pearl Harbor (this is the period of time when Yun Ling is captured and held as a prisoner by the Japanese).
  • The Malayan Emergency which was a guerrilla war fought between Commonwealth armed forces and the Malayan National Liberation Army (the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party) from 1948 to 1960.

The central theme in the novel is that of memory – how memory can be healing and how it can change with time. Yun Ling’s memories of her time in captivity are ones she has worked most of her life to forget. But now she is facing the loss of all her memories, and she is struggling to remember.

I have become a collapsing star, pulling everything around it, even the light, into an ever-expanding void. – from The Garden of Evening Mists, page 33 –

Eng uses the garden with its hidden secrets and surprising twists and views, as a metaphor for memory. Aritomo uses the concept of shakkei – a way of borrowing the landscape and other elements to enhance the beauty of the garden – and Yun Ling makes the connection between this style of gardening to that of memory:

‘A garden borrows from the earth, the sky, and everything around it, but you borrow from time,’ I said slowly. ‘Your memories are a form of shakkei too. You bring them in to make your life here feel less empty. Like the mountains and the clouds over your garden, you can see them, but they will always be out of your reach.’ – from The Garden of Evening Mists, page 153 –

This idea of memory as elusive and related to the natural world permeates the novel.

Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement 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. – from The Garden of Evening Mists, page 309 –

Other themes explored in the book are recovery from trauma, nationalism, and the impact of war on individuals.

Eng’s prose is often dreamlike and elegant. His shifts in narrative allow for the reader to discover Yun Ling’s inner journey and adds complexity to the other characters who are uncovered gradually through Yun Ling’s memories of them and the events which unfurl.

The Garden of Evening Mists is a quiet novel at times with the action being more about Yun Ling’s inner growth and dawning perceptions of Aritomo. But there are also some graphic descriptions of the violence which rocked this region. When Yun Ling takes the reader back to the years of her captivity, I found it hard to catch my breath.

Eng’s writing is gorgeous. He demonstrates a deep understanding about how events shape our lives and how the natural world is intricately enmeshed with who we are as humans. He also understands the complexity of people – the multiple layers which make up our lives and the hidden secrets we all carry.

The Garden of Evening Mists is a literary treat. Readers who love literary fiction will find themselves pulled into this introspective and exquisitely written novel.

Highly recommended.

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FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review on my blog.

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  1. Oh, what a sad story. I’m glad to know it’s written so beautifully.

    • Serena on April 3, 2012 at 07:42

    I’m so glad that you enjoyed this one as much as I did. I think your review is much better than mine. I just loved this book. How does one write a review that does it justice? I’m still thinking about this one.

    • Wendy on April 3, 2012 at 07:50

    Kathy: It is a sad story – but beautifully done.

    Serena: I read your review and I thought you did a great job with it! I think this is a hard book to encapsulate in a review – there is so much depth to the story and the themes and metaphors are complex. I just really love Eng’s writing style. It makes me want to pick up a copy of his first book!

      • Serena on April 3, 2012 at 07:52

      Me too. I would read the first one in a heart beat. This one just captivated me. Did you find the beginning slow like Audra at Unabridged Chick?

        • Wendy on April 3, 2012 at 07:59

        Well, as a whole, I don’t think this is a fast-paced book. It is very meditative and much of the action is internal. But, I like quiet books like this when the writing is so gorgeous. I can see where some readers might not enjoy the pace. For me, the writing drew me in immediately and I loved sinking into the descriptions.

          • Serena on April 3, 2012 at 16:22

          I was a little put off in the first few pages, but I really was seduced by the writing and by the end I didn’t want to be let go…I wanted to stay in that world.

    • Kay on April 3, 2012 at 11:06

    I’m very drawn to this book, although one so literary is not my usual fare. However, there was a very nice elderly woman who lived in the Alzheimer’s care center where my father spent his last couple of years and she had primary progressive aphasia. She was such a dear person. An interesting life. Her husband was in our support group and he told us she was a retired flight nurse. She had worked as one of the first flight nurses ever, was in the military in WWII and Korea. Worked in a MASH unit. It was very sad because she couldn’t speak clearly at all. She kind of chittered like a chipmunk. But she knew what she was saying and she had the kindest and brightest eyes. Still a nurturer. She roamed the halls all the time – quite the walker – and I’d always try to stop and speak to her if I saw her. I would just act like I could understand and tell her she looked pretty that day and wasn’t that a nice pink sweatshirt she was wearing or wasn’t it a pretty day or somesuch. I know this has nothing really to do with this book’s story, except for the aphasia. Anyway, I’ll be seeking it out. I miss seeing Virginia (her name), but I suspect she is gone by now.

      • Wendy on April 3, 2012 at 16:52

      That is a lovely story, Kay – thank you for sharing it. It is funny how certain people “stick with us” through the years…

  2. I’m confused by this sentence: “The Japanese Invasion of Malaya (also called the Battle of Kota Bharu) which began December 8, 1941 before the attack on Pearl Harbor.”

    The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, when I was one-and-a-half years old. Was it a typo?

      • Wendy on April 3, 2012 at 16:51

      Bonnie, no, not a typo…but I should have put “local time” because I suppose more American readers would read it just the way you did. It was December 8th in Malaya, but not in the US. Hope that helps!

  3. I am so glad to see that you liked this one, and that the writing was so expressive and beautiful. I think that you have convinced me to grab this one when I can. I loved this review, particularly all of the quotes you shared.

      • Wendy on April 4, 2012 at 07:38

      Heather, have you read his first book? I have not, but now I want to 🙂 Hope you’ll love this novel.

  4. I need, oh how I need, time. to write to you, first of all, and to read this book, which sounds exquisite. sending my love to you on the Easter holiday. thinking of the stories you have told me.

      • Wendy on April 8, 2012 at 10:56

      Beth *hugs* Thank you for your sweet note this morning! I think this is a book you would enjoy for the beautiful imagery and writing.

  5. I love that first quote you put up from page 100….. what gorgeous writing!

      • Wendy on April 8, 2012 at 10:57

      Sheila: The writing is definitely a strength of the book – and I am a sucker for beautiful prose!

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