Engaging, restrained, beautiful.

The Garden of Evening Mists - Tan Twan Eng

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. [amazon]


This is an exquisite novel - elegantly crafted, beautifully written, evocatice.


The story unfolds in flashbacks to different times. The pacing is at times very slow but does not drag - instead, I enjoyed the slow pace, the beautiful language and the vivid imagery. I was drawn into the book and it stayed with me for a long time after I finished.


The characterization of the protagonist is criticised by some readers as flat or impersonal. I did not get that feeling - rather, I had the impression of a very restrained and private person who slowly lets us into her mind and her memories.


The story is full of dichotomies - memory and forgetting, war/violence and the peace of the garden, trust and betrayal, honor and shame. These contrasts do not feel manufactured but part of a whole that beautifully comes together.


It is a multi cultured novel. Sometimes, the Japanese art themes were a little too dominant for me. Eng still manages to evoke the beauty and attention to detail that is its basis in a way that made me look closer at the details and enjoy the attention. And you need to pay attention in order to understand the slow unveiling of the complex characters and their development, and perceive their past actions and at times, questionable choices.


The ending - for me - did not feel open or unfinished. I think that the main threads were picked up and resolved, and if there are one or two still hanging in the air - such is life. We cannot answer every question, and we do not need to.


I thoroughly enjoyed the book and was left sad but very peaceful.


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