The Garden Of Evening Mists
Review of a novel written by Tan Twan Eng
Set in the Cameron Highlands of their native Malaya, Yun Ling and her sister are imprisoned in a POW camp during WWII by a cruel, occupying Japanese army. Yun Ling becomes the only prisoner to survive the horrors of the camp, thanks to the actions of a Japanese officer whom befriends her and helps her escape. After the war is over, Yun Ling embarks on a plan to create a lasting memorial to her sister.
She meets Aritomo, a former gardener to the Emperor of Japan, and asks him to design a garden for her sister. He offers to teach her to build the garden herself and become his apprentice. Following her initial hostilility towards Aritomo due to his indifference towards his countrymen’s actions during the war, their association develops into an intimate relationship.
After his mysterious disappearance, questions about Aritomo’s role during the war begin to materialise. The slow, unravelling of facts and intriguing questions left unanswered provide the story with a timeless quality, allowing the reader a metaphorical space to safely inquire and draw their own conclusions in determining whether Aritomo could have been complicit in the actions of his country.
Tan Twan Eng’s subtle and descriptive style creates a good sense of place and character. There are some beautiful examples of prose that are profound and thought-provoking. Among the examples, the following two paragraphs captured my imagination in particular:
‘Bats are flooding out from the hundreds of caves that perforate these mountainsides. I watch them plunge into the mists without any hesitation, trusting in the echoes and silences in which they fly.
‘Are all of us the same, I wonder, navigating our lives by interpreting the silences between words spoken, analysing the returning echoes of our memory in order to chart the terrain, in order to make sense of the world around us’?
The Garden Of Evening Mists alludes to a very dark period of human history where thousands of civilians endured unimaginable brutality at the hands of their captors. Their courage and resilience serves to reveal the interminable strength of the human spirit when confronted with such terrifying acts of ruthless aggression.