The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng is a highly atmospheric novel that oozes mysterious beauty and is set in Malaysia following the retirement of Judge Teoh Yun Ling, a survivor of a brutal Japanese internment camp during WWII when Japan attacked her homeland in China.  Following her survival she comes to Malaysia where she meets the former Japanese Emperor’s gardener Nakamura Aritomo.

Eng uses shifts in time between the present when Malaysia is its own country to when it was under attack from communist guerrillas.  While the nation is struggling to become independent from British rule Ling meets Aritomo and requests his help to make a Japanese garden to honor her sister.

“There has been a storm in the night, and clouds are still marooned on the peaks.  I step down the veranda onto a narrow strip of ceramic tiles, cold and wet beneath my bare soles.”  (Page 11)

Like the narrow path of tiles, Ling has navigated a small space between sanity and insanity when it comes to dealing with what happened to her in the internment camps.  Although she was a judge for more than 12 years seeking justice, she also sought to provide herself with a bit of solace when she sat on the tribunal for Japanese war criminals seeking out kernels of information about the secret camp in the jungle where she and her sister were held prisoner.

Eng is deft in his selection of images and moments like these as he strives to provide a deeper understanding of Ling’s character and the rawness she still feels even though she survived the camp and was released at age 17.  This rawness is prevalent in her reactions to Aritomo when she first meets him and begins gardening at Yugiri, and even in the book’s present, she is still carrying that wariness of the Japanese when she meets with historian Tatsuji.

A deep intimacy is created in Eng’s prose between Aritomo, Ling, and the reader, and through this connection, readers will garner a deeper sense of connection and how it can ultimately lead to a greater understanding of the self and of forgiveness.  Readers will be transported into the Malaysian countryside in the mountains with Ling, Aritomo, and the others, but the journey through the untamed jungle is what will capture their attentions as the mysteries behind Ling’s survival from the internment camp and Aritomo’s departure from the Japanese empire as the Emperor’s gardener are unraveled like so many vines.

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng has to be one of the best and most well written novels about WWII in the Pacific Theater and how the war impacted not only Malaysians and the British, but also those loyal to the Emperor Hirohito and the politics of a nation caught between two colonizing nations.  Additionally, it easily demonstrates the different ideologies floating about at the time and the aftermath of a major war on the colonies caught in between.  Eng interweaves the past with the present and the not-so-distant past to illuminate the scars that must be overcome by these characters, but only once they begin to see past their own ethnicity and prejudices.  It is a story of love, forgetting, remembering, and healing.

One of the best books I’ve read this year!

About the Author:

Tan Twan Eng is a Malaysian author born in Penang. His first novel The Gift of Rain was published in 2007 and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize that year; it is set in Penang in the years before and during the Japanese occupation of Malaya in World War II and has received critical acclaim around the world.



This is my 20th book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.