THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon)
People who have suffered through wars, death camps and other violations often need a lot of help recovering their peace of mind. In this novel the protagonist, Teoh Yun Ling, finds it is only in one particular garden that she finds “a sense of order, and calm, and even, for a brief moment of time, forgetfulness”. Tan Twan Eng uses the concepts that underpin Japanese gardens and the ancient Chinese gardens on which they are based to construct this lovely and highly unusual novel.
Teoh Yun Ling is a “Straits Chinese” woman whose family move to Malaya before World War II, when she is still a child. When we meet her she has just retired from the Bench in Kuala Lumpur and has gone to a house in the countryside. The house, and more especially the garden, was created and left to her by Nokumura Aritomo, who was previously the gardener of the Japanese Emperor. How he came to be in Malaya, and how Yun Ling and her sister were sent to a labour camp when the Japanese attacked Malaya are gradually revealed: the plot is as intricate, controlled and weighted with significance and ineffable sadness as the making of an oriental garden.
By the time Aritomo makes the garden, Yun Ling has been released from the camp and is working with him learning the “art of setting stones” and of shakkei, the use of “borrowed scenery” in the design of a garden. She also learns about woodcuts and horimono (tattoo), in which arts Aritomo is also a master. At the heart of all this are questions relating to memory, forgiveness and justice with which Yun Ling has been unusually obsessed her whole adult life; she has especially pursued justice in her work on war crimes tribunals. And she has also searched endlessly for her sister’s grave.
Countering this is the subplot of the Pretorius family, who have run the neighbouring tea estate since just after the Boer War. Although this is an interesting conjuction of cultures, the parts of the novel that deal with the expat and British colonial history, although probably realistic, lack the elegant passion of the sections that relate to Yugiri, the Garden of the Evening Mists. Similarly, the sections dealing with the war experiences of a Japanese pilot do not really add to the main theme, although they do elaborate the moral dilemmas of war.
Yun Ling allows a professor to see Aritomo’s woodcuts, with a view to putting them into a book. When she shows him the horimono that Aritomo has done for her, she begins to achieve a better understanding of the man who was her teacher and lover, and much else besides.
This is a thoughtful and beautifully written novel, one to treasure despite, or because of, its austerity.
The Garden of Evening Mists is short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2012.