In Tan Twan Eng’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel, Yun Ling is desperately trying to preserve her memories before a neurological illness destroys her mind and body. Through this act of reconstruction and preservation, the horrifying experience of Yun Ling’s life in a WWII Japanese internment camp is revealed, as well as her heartbreaking tale of sacrifice, survival and recovery. As the sole survivor of the war camp, Yun Ling is unable to forgive herself for leaving her sister behind, and seeks to preserve her memory through the construction of an elaborate Japanese garden. Soon, she begins an apprenticeship with Aritomo – a reclusive, but highly-respected Japanese artist and gardener. Aritomo was once the gardener to the Emperor, but he eventually settled in Malaya, where he meets Yun Ling, who is still incredibly suspicious of and frightened by the Japanese, but willing to endure Aritomo’s teachings for the sake of her sister’s memory.
But soon, Yun Ling’s apprenticeship with Aritomo develops into a quiet, but complicated romance, and she finds out that their paths have intersected since her childhood. Despite their intimacy, Aritomo is reluctant to share his history with his lover, and the couple compensates with a bond over nature and art. Aritomo soon reveals that he is a master of the art of horimono tattoos – a practice that is both sacred and controversial – and he recruits Yun Ling as his next subject. The tattoo takes months to complete, and when it is finished, Yun Ling is mesmerized by the skillful design of the tattoo. It is certainly beautiful, but there is something mysterious and cryptic about the patterns and markings. As Yun Ling completes her biographical account, she is enlightened to the true meaning of the horimono – a discovery that answers questions from long ago and allows her to finally complete her long-awaited journey of healing.
The Garden of Evening Mists is a tender story of grief, faith, sacrifice, and redemption, and the plot is well-crafted, but for me, this is not the Man Booker Prize winner. As some other critiques of this novel have stated, the second half of the story is disappointingly predictable and the character development is somewhat underwhelming. Even so, The Garden of Evening Mists is a fascinating depiction of war-era Malaya – a period of WWII history that is often overlooked. Tan Twan Eng skillfully weaves the violence of war with the beauty and delicacy of Aritomo’s garden to create a story that is quite a sensory experience. The lush, vibrant landscape becomes the novel’s most compelling character and reminds readers of the harmonious healing powers that nature can exude.
This review was simultaneously posted on Hooked Bookworm on 10/2/12