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