Book Review: 2012 Long Listed: Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists (Review #2)

The_Garden_Of_Evening_MistsRating: 3.5
The Garden of Evening Mists
A Novel by Tan Twan Eng
2012 / 350 Pages

The Setup: Malaya, 1949. After studying law at Cambrige and time spent helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals, Yun Ling Teoh, herself the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle fringed plantations of Northern Malaya where she grew up as a child. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan.

Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in Kuala Lumpur, in memory of her sister who died in the camp. Aritomo refuses, but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice ‘until the monsoon comes.’ Then she can design a garden for herself. As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to her sensei and his art while, outside the garden, the threat of murder and kidnapping from the guerrillas of the jungle hinterland increases with each passing day.

But the Garden of Evening Mists is also a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? Why is it that Yun Ling’s friend and host Magnus Praetorius, seems to almost immune from the depredations of the Communists? What is the legend of ‘Yamashita’s Gold’ and does it have any basis in fact? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all? (from the hardcover edition)


This review was simultaneously published on Opinionless on 08/21/2012

My initial impression of The Garden of Evening Mists was that it reminded me of a cross between Anita Desai’s PEN/Faulkner nominated collection The Artist of Disappearance and Abraham Verghese’s beloved novel Cutting for Stone. That’s certainly rather good company to be in.

In Desai’s story The Museum of Final Journeys readers are introduced to a British judge dealing with an interesting and complex dilemma involving a museum while completing his training in India. The Garden of Evening Mists features Teoh Yun Ling,a recently retired judge with a Girton education that was focused on trying war criminals because of her time spent in a Japanese prison camp deep in the jungles of her homeland.

In Verghese’s tale we’re treated to something epic in scope, spanning several continents and introducing the reader to a dazzling array of multifaceted characters. Mists’ Teoh Yun Ling lost her only sister in the prison camp and is now slowly losing her ability to speak, read, and write thanks to the onset of a debilitating case of dementia. She hates the Japanese, but the only way to properly honor her sister was to befriend one of them and ask for his assistance.

Sadly though, as brilliantly as the novel starts the richness of its story begins to fizzle almost just as quickly. Teoh Yun Ling is interesting throughout, but the cast of characters she’s surrounded with all feel rather one dimensional and blurry at best. Halfway through the novel the reader discovers that there’s only really one possible ending in sight, and when it arrives they’re less than shocked, though perhaps a bit pleased to have been on the right track from the get go.

Focusing on Ling and bouncing between three distinct time periods – her time spent prosecuting war criminals, her time spent apprenticing under the Japanese gardener Aritomo, and the present day where she’s struggling to recollect and write it all down before her faculties fail her, The Garden of Evening Mists offers up just enough in the way of an interesting story to keep the reader engaged, but it’s author Tan Twan Eng’s gift for writing beautiful, striking prose that really keeps one turning the pages:

It was the only time in my life that I had seen my father cry. He had aged so much. But then, I suppose, so had I. My parents had left Penang and moved to Kuala Lumpur. In the new house he took me upstairs to my mother’s room, walking with a limp that he had never had before the war. My mother had not recognised me, and she had turned her back to me. After a few days she remembered I was her daughter, but each time she saw me she began asking about Yun Hong – where she was, when she was coming home, why she had not returned yet. After a while I began to dread visiting her.

It’s this mastery over language that helps to transport the reader out of their element and immerse them fully in the setting. Whether it be a Japanese garden, a hostile war zone, or a prison camp, when you’re reading this novel, you will feel like you’re there. This sensory attachment that Eng creates with his reader is enough to earn long list consideration this year, but the novel’s lack of storytelling depth may be what ultimately keeps it from moving any further along in the process.

It’s not as if nothing happens, Communist terrorists are a constant threat, Ling is slowly losing her mind, tales of Japanese kamikaze pilots and army soldiers are told in vivid detail. The problem is that it’s all so predictable and that from the start the novel leads the reader down a single path with no alternate routes or possible dead ends anywhere in sight.

The Garden of Evening Mists is a novel that should be experienced for its overwhelming ability to overpower one’s sense of time and place, but while the author’s command of the written word is astounding his story telling ability sadly lags just slightly behind.

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