Growing up in Malaysia in the 1930’s, Yun Ling Teoh and her family lived a privileged life that was nearly destroyed during the onset of the Japanese Occupation during World War II. Because of Yun Ling’s father’s strong anti-Japanese sentiments, Yun Ling and her sister, Yun Hong were captured by the Japanese and sent to work in a slave labor camp of an unknown location. Made to suffer indescribable atrocities at the hands of the Japanese, Yun Ling, then only in her teens, miraculously survives the camp after the war, and goes on to become a successful lawyer, public prosecutor, and later, a well-known judge.
The Garden of Evening Mists is a complex, multi-layered story that moves back and forth through time through the narratives of Yun Ling and other characters. It begins in the late ’80’s, with a 60 year old Yun Ling, now a hardened, retired judge who has endured much in one lifetime. Desperate to remember her past before her strange illness takes over her brain and renders her unable to do so, Yun Ling forces herself to return to her painful past and put on paper everything, and everyone in her life worth remembering.
As the present Yun Ling returns to the highlands of Malay to Yugiri, or Evening Mists, she recalls the first time she visited the place and met the Japanese gardener who would change her life.
As Yun Ling’s story slowly unfolds, we learn of her life after the Japanese labor camps, and how she became a lawyer, and later public prosecutor. She describes the struggles of the Malay government against communist insurgencies, and how she sought out Aritomo Nakamura, a former Imperial gardener in Yugiri in the mountains of Malaysia, with the intent of commissioning him to create a traditional Japanese garden in memory of her sister, Yun Hong. Turning down the commission but offering her an apprenticeship instead, Yun Ling’s learns not only the principles of Japanese gardening, but also to overcome her prejudices, heal from the emotional wounds inflicted by her captors, and to find the inner peace she so longed for. As she works on Yugiri and as Aritomo becomes more than her teacher and mentor, she recounts for him the unspeakable events and conditions inside the Japanese labor camps, the truth behind her escape, and her lifelong quest to find answers regarding the location of the lost labor camp.
Though a work of fiction, Evening Mists is a historical and political novel which tackles sensitive issues of war, including atrocities suffered by women and children at the hands of the Japanese, and a country’s independence against colonial rule. It also has strong Japanese elements, not only on the principles of gardening, but also on horimono, the full body tattoos commonly seen in members of the Japanese Yakuza.
Tan Twan Eng is a master of poetic prose, creating the mood of the novel which is both tranquil and melancholy, mirroring the atmosphere within Yugiri and forests surrounding it. Tan Twan Eng sets a pace for the novel that is slow and deliberate, almost languid. The result is an elegantly written novel that almost forces readers to slow down and savor every word, every sentence. Like the Japanese garden Aritomo designs, Tan Twan Eng’s novel is simple in design yet multi-dimensional, complex, and full of hidden secrets. His carefully crafted tale blossoms slowly, revealing truths in trickles, with a conclusion that is surprising and unpredictable.
The Garden of Evening Mists (2012) – Tan Twan Eng
Canongate; 348 pgs.
Personal rating: 3.5/5