Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Singapore garden frog
"On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan. Not many people would have known of him before the war, but I did. He had left his home on the rim of the sunrise to come to the central highlands of Malaya. I was seventeen years old when my sister first told me about him. A decade would pass before I travelled up to the mountains to see him.

He did not apologise for what his countrymen had done to my sister and me. Not on that rain-scratched morning when we first met, nor at any other time. What words could have healed my pain, returned my sister to me? None. And he understood that. Not many people did."

These are the two opening paragraphs of Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists, which is currently on the Man Booker Prize longlist. Teoh Yun Ling, only survivor of a secret Japanese labour camp, is the narrator. Yun Ling comes from an Anglophile Chinese family in Kuala Lumpur. She asks Nakamura Aritomo, the Japanese master gardener, if he will design a garden in memory of her older sister who died in the brutal camp. He refuses, offering instead to teach Yun Ling how to create one herself.

The story moves back and forth in time, mostly between the period of the Malayan Emergency after WWII, which is when Yun Ling is apprenticed to Aritomo, and present day, when Yun Ling has retired from her legal career as a justice, where she was known for her work in prosecuting war criminals.
A Malaysian family took my photo in a garden in
Singapore when I was travelling on my own in 2002.

The Garden of Evening Mists is an atmospheric novel that immersed me in another place and time. I was intrigued by the large cast of characters and enjoyed the slow reveal of their complexities. I also enjoyed expanding my existing knowledge about Japanese gardens and learning a little about such things as the gathering of swifts' nests for soup; the connections between Japanese tattoo art and woodblock prints; and mid-twentieth century life on a tea plantation.

It seems that I cannot escape my attraction to novels that deal with the fallout from war. This is a powerful and poetic story about how we learn to move on, even from the most terrible circumstances imaginable.

Readalikes: The Harmony Silk Factory (Tash Aw) and, for more from the viewpoint of Japanese soldiers, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths (Shigaru Mizuki).

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