“The Garden of Evening Mists” by Tan Twan Eng.

The Garden of Evening Mists: coverWikipedia provides this introduction to the novel:

The Garden of Evening Mists is the second novel by Malaysian novelist Tan Twan Eng, published in January 2012. The protagonist of the novel is the judge Yun Ling Teoh, who was a [prisoner of the Japanese] during World War II, and later served as an apprentice of a Japanese gardener. As the story begins, she is trying to make sense of her life and experiences. The novel takes place during three different time periods: the late 1980s, when the main character writes down her story, the early 1950s, when the main action takes place, and World War II, which provides the backdrop for the story.

Critical reception for the novel was generally favourable. It was awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize (2012) and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

We read this in November 2013, when 9 people gathered for an excellent meeting and a good discussion of the book.

Jade gave the conversation some structure by first asking for thoughts about what people had liked about the book.  Several people commented that that they thought the writing and language was beautiful, and others felt that it dealt with an interesting and little-known period.

We moved on to agree that there were a number of strong themes within the narrative. Memory, secrecy and things being revealed or hidden was very strong, reflected both in the characters but also within the design of the Japanese garden that plays a central part in the story. Other themes included guilt and blame, also seasonal change.

In discussing characters, no-one had warmed to the central character of Yun Ling. One person thought that she seemed too cool and self-contained and didn’t express anything which reached out for our sympathy. Malcolm thought this was understandable given the trauma that she had experienced in the war years, but Jo found her character and actions unbelievable.

The other main character, Arimoto,  was of more interest, embodying a number of mysteries and contradictions. He presents himself as a reclusive and spiritual artist, so devoted to his principles that he was prepared to leave his elevated position of gardener to the Emperor of Japan. Yet as the book progresses, different aspects of his past are hinted at, which suggest he may have been much less detached from the war than we thought. A strong possibility emerges that the very design of the garden is hiding a very big secret, but this is never entirely confirmed and our group was not sure whether this was true or just another possibility hiding behind the evening mists.

Helen was in a very small minority, not having enjoyed the language and giving up half-way through, having found the book dull. Other criticisms from our group were minor – the difficulty of becoming familiar with unfamiliar names and some confusion caused by the shifting timeframes within the narrative. Some also disliked the change of narrative voice in just one chapter in the middle of the book.

Overall, we thought this provided a great book for discussion, with lots of areas of interest and generating plenty of questions for debate.

Individual scores ranged from 3 to 9 out of 10. Apart from the one score of 3, all the others were at 6 or more, giving an average of 6.9 from 9 readers.

Other views:

The blogger Eric Forbes provides an interesting article which is mainly about Tan Twan Eng and being shortlisted for the Man Booker in the same year as Hilary Mantel. The article includes a short summary of the Garden of Evening Mists, including one sentence that chimes in with much of our discussion.

“It is a heart-wrenching tale of remembrance and forgiveness narrated in a strong yet quiet voice.”

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1 Comment

  1. malcolmbbc

     /  November 22, 2013

    Margaret was unable to join our meeting but forwarded this detailed review:

    A 2nd book by Malaysian born author, however, it is the 1st I have read. I am not sure whether it has been written in English or translated, so can only comment on the language as is.

    Very steady calm considered use of language. The emotions and grievances are alluded to but only rarely erupt in the history tale from a period that we (or at least I) know little of, during that time, in that country, regarding the treatment of Malaysian and Chinese people by the Japanese.

    I have heard of atrocities involved in the treatment of our own troops and people, but nothing from the perspective of the people living there. It is a first for me to know something about this and I am very pleased to have read this book and increase my knowledge.

    The garden of the title which eventually is created has healing qualities for body and spirit. Looking into the water is a window to heaven/ another world. A living art work.

    The story unfolds through the eyes of Teoh Yun Ling, the only survivor of a detainee camp. There is a question hanging in the story as to why she is the only survivor. She has since become a judge seeking out those who reigned in terror in Malaya during the 2nd world war, although she gives this up to find the person who can make a garden in her sister’s memory. The book shifts around in time which was ok for me but in the use of dialogue it was not always easy to tell who was the speaker.

    TYL wants a garden “The Pavilion of Heaven” in memory of her sister who died in the camp. Meteor storm P215 “ I forgot where I was, what I had gone through, what I had lost.

    The Garden Master Aritomo is the Japanese side of the history. There is a lot of family honour involved on both sides. Layers of guilt. Perhaps all survivors carry guilt.

    Nadeem Aslam’s “The Blind Man’s Garden”: A garden bathes all the senses. What a garden looks like is different in different cultures. It can be a healing place but involves toil from the gardener. It uses the body of the gardener, the mind of the gardener and emotions of the gardener. Also, the ability to connect with the garden depends on the experience of the viewer.

    There are a number of different nationalities involved in Malaya another thing I did not know. In this book a South African runs a tea plantation but he is also someone involved in TYL’s family particularly with her father.

    TYL does not appear to have been able to reconnect with her Father and Mother. There are a lot of undercurrents and mysteries as to who did what to who, and who blames who.

    In the camp part of TYL’s hand was chopped off. This type of outrageous trauma and torture is still prevalent today I have recently seen pictures from Africa.

    TYL and Aritomo progress, from master and apprentice to lovers. There is a pervasive sense of threat and violence. The CITs kill the South African plantation owner. The Japanese man disappears. TYL becomes the person in charge of the garden and takes on the sensibilities of Aritomo regarding it.

    Is it a parable?

    Are we all the same and become each other, the weak become the strong, the weak become the oppressor. Is it that everyone is capable of anything?

    It was well written and an interesting subject. There was an assuredness about the writing that created the tone. It drew me in, I am glad to have read it but I am left wondering.


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