First published on 28th Feb, 2012 in The Star
THE GARDEN OF EVENINNG MISTS
Author: Tan Twan Eng
Review by Daphne Lee
ON a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been a gardener of the Emperor of Japan.”
The first sentence of Tan Twan Eng’s second novel, The Garden Of Evening Mists, has a fairytale-like resonance, a magical quality that intrigues and beguiles. Who was this man and why did he journey so far from his home? Where was this mountain above the clouds and what did the Emperor’s gardener do there?
Almost immediately, this sense of picturesque tranquillity is disrupted by vague yet unmistakable references to violence, pain and sorrow in the subsequent sentences.
What was the exact nature of the relationship between the novel’s narrator and the Japanese gardener? From the book’s second paragraph, I found myself utterly absorbed by Tan’s characters, captivated by their histories and, especially by how the paths of their separate lives intersected and finally converged at Yugiri – the garden of evening mists.
The novel’s narrator is Teoh Yun Ling, a judge who has retired from the bench two years early. She journeys up to Cameron Highlands to stay at Yugiri, which we learn was bequeathed to her by Aritomo, the Japanese gardener. More than 35 years ago, Yun Ling had asked him to design a Japanese garden for her older sister, Yun Hong, who died in an internment camp. Although Aritomo turned down her request, he took Yun Ling on as his apprentice.
Now in her 60s, Yun Ling has been diagnosed with a condition that will, in time, rob her of the ability to understand all written and spoken language. Fear of losing her memory and, with it, her link with Yugiri, Aritomo and the past, Yun Ling decides to write about her life. Through this device, we are taken into the past, to the time of the Malayan Emergency, when Yun Ling first meets the gardener and becomes his apprentice.
Although pre-independence Malaya has never interested me much as a novel setting, I was interested in how a Japanese gardener would fit into this portion of Malayan history. It is an unusual feature, to say the least, but Tan has made Aritomo’s presence in Malaya and his work at Yugiri a plausible and fitting part of the storyline.
Over several meetings in Malaysia recently (the author now lives in Cape Town, South Africa), Tan explains: “The seed of the story was planted by a meeting I had with a Japanese man who was actually one of the gardeners of the Japanese emperor. Just the description of the man’s position – ‘the Emperor’s gardener’ – had such resonance that I wondered what I could do with a character like that. I already had other elements of the book floating around, and I decided to put an emperor’s gardener into the mix – to see what would result.”
Happily, Aritomo’s garden and the art of Japanese gardening prove to be powerful metaphors for several of the novel’s themes, most significantly that of death and rebirth, and reality and illusion.
It is also movingly ironic that Aritomo should not only be an instrument of healing for Yun Ling, but the very balm that heals her psychic wounds.
Both Aritomo and Yun Ling are strong, extremely complex characters that I found difficult to understand and like until the very end. However, this made them very interesting and real to me. There was always a sense of something hidden and unspoken about the pair of them that I needed to get to the bottom of. In the case of Yun Ling, I often felt impatient and angry with her coldness, but in the end, when she reveals the whole truth about her past, I could no longer feel anything but compassion for her.
According to Tan, The Garden Of Evening Mists was a difficult novel to write and one reason was “because Yun Ling very much wanted to keep her secrets to herself. Because of what she had gone through, and what she had become, no one was allowed into her head. And yet at the same time she wanted to – she had to – reveal those secrets. It was a constant battle for me to crack her open.”
The gradual revealing of Yun Ling’s character kept me turning the pages of the book. In fact, although the setting of the novel was of historical interest, and Tan’s description’s, through Yun Ling’s eyes, brought to life an era that I am largely ignorant about, it was Tan’s characters that drew me fully into the story. The main cast comprises richly drawn individuals whom I readily believed in and engaged with, but even the minor characters are vivid and distinctive.
Tan, 39, says that he’s the sort of writer who gives his characters “freedom to grow” but reins them in “when they become unruly” and move “in a direction that wouldn’t help the story at all.”
He says that even before he wrote a single word, he had had a clear idea of the main protagonists. He also knew how he wanted the book to begin and end. “But I had no idea how to get from the start to the conclusion,” he says. “Each sentence, each paragraph, each chapter revealed itself to me over the course of writing. I did countless rewrites, constantly moved scenes and chapters around to find the right structure, the right balance, and more than once took out entire sections and chapters.”
The result of all that work is writing that flows smoothly and seamlessly. It’s a book that I feel I shall surely re-visit, and it’s interesting that, although it contains many difficult and violent scenes, I find the story an essentially comforting one. I believe this is because although this is a book about human cruelty, fear and revenge, it is also a book about love, beauty and kindness.
Tan says that one of the reasons he wrote this book was because he feels it’s important to tell stories of the Japanese occupation – “one of the most traumatic events to have occurred in our past.” In my opinion, telling these stories acknowledges the suffering that occurred, and gives those who suffered a voice. It’s to be hoped that these stories represent a step in the right direction towards forgiveness and reconciliation.
Tan’s debut novel, The Gift Of Rain was also set in pre-independence Malaya and was longlisted for the prestigious 2007 Booker Prize.
The Garden of Evening Mists was shortlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize, and won the Man Asian Literary Prize 2012 and and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.