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.

Mailbox Monday #167

Mailbox Mondays (click the icon to check out the new blog) has gone on tour since Marcia at A Girl and Her Books, formerly The Printed Page passed the torch. This month’s host is Diary of an Eccentric.

Kristi of The Story Siren continues to sponsor her In My Mailbox meme.

Both of these memes allow bloggers to share what books they receive in the mail or through other means over the past week.

Just be warned that these posts can increase your TBR piles and wish lists.

Here’s what I received this week:

1.  What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes, which I bought.

In 1968, at the age of twenty-three, Karl Marlantes was dropped into the highland jungle of Vietnam, an inexperienced lieutenant in command of a platoon of forty Marines who would live or die by his decisions. Marlantes survived, but like many of his brothers in arms, he has spent the last forty years dealing with his war experience. In What It Is Like to Go to War, Marlantes takes a deeply personal and candid look at what it is like to experience the ordeal of combat, critically examining how we might better prepare our soldiers for war. Marlantes weaves riveting accounts of his combat experiences with thoughtful analysis, self-examination, and his readings—from Homer to The Mahabharata to Jung. He makes it clear just how poorly prepared our nineteen-year-old warriors are for the psychological and spiritual aspects of the journey.

Just as Matterhorn is already being acclaimed as acclaimed as a classic of war literature, What It Is Like to Go to War is set to become required reading for anyone—soldier or civilian—interested in this visceral and all too essential part of the human experience.

2.  The Names of Things by John Colman Wood for review in May from Ashland Creek Press.

The anthropologist’s wife, an artist, didn’t want to follow her husband to the remote desert of northeast Africa to live with camel-herding nomads. But wanting to be with him, she endured the trip, only to fall desperately ill years later with a disease that leaves her husband with more questions than answers.

When the anthropologist discovers a deception that shatters his grief and guilt, he begins to reevaluate his love for his wife as well as his friendship with one of the nomads he studied. He returns to Africa to make sense of what happened, traveling into the far reaches of the Chalbi Desert, where he must sift through the layers of his memories and reconcile them with what he now knows.

3.  The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng for review in March from Myrmidon Books.

It’s 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?

4. A Demon Does It Better by Linda Wisdom, which I won from Peeking Between the Pages.

After more than a century, Doctor Lili Carter, witch healer extraordinaire, has returned to San Francisco and taken a job at Crying Souls Hospital and Asylum, where something peculiar and wicked his happening. Patients are disappearing, and Lil wants to know why. AND DOUBLY DANGEROUS FOR A DEMON… Lili finds herself undeniably attracted to perhaps the most mysterious patient of all-a demented but seriously sexy demon named Jared. What’s behind the gorgeous chameleon demon’s late-night escapades? Before long, Lili and Jared are investigating each other-and creating a whole new kind of magic.

What did you receive this week?