Category: Fiction/Historical – Hardcover: 448 pages – Publisher: Myrmidon Books Ltd – Source: Public Library
First Published: February 2012
Man Booker Prize Shortlisted 2012
My review of this Man Booker shortlisted novel is, I have to admit, biased (in a good way) by background knowledge. It’s set in Malaysia during the 1950s in a period called ‘the Malayan Emergency’ and deals with a Chinese character recovering from experiences in a Japanese POW camp by apprenticing with a Japanese master gardener. My RAF grandfather was stationed in Malaysia in the late 1950s at the height of the Emergency. In the 1940s my Portuguese Chinese great uncle spent three years and eight months in a Japanese POW camp after the Battle of Hong Kong and later founded the Hong Kong POW Association to help other survivors forgive but never forget their experiences.
More succinctly put: I came to this book with more knowledge than the average reader, plenty of questions and an awareness that prisoner of war narratives are anything but simple or clean.
The Garden of Evening Mists is told by Teoh Yun Ling as an old lady as she looks back at her extraordinary life. At the novel’s opening she is Judge Teoh*, a respected, eloquent and fair member of Malaysian society in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. In the flashbacks though it is the 1950s and she is just Yun Ling*, a Chinese woman recovering from the horrors of a WWII Japanese POW camp in the highlands of Malaysia. As the ‘Malayan Emergency’ unfolds and the jungle is full of dangerous CTs (Communist-Terrorists) she comes to terms with what has happened to her and becomes an apprentice to a mysterious master Japanese gardener with a complicated past of his own. She hopes to learn what she needs quickly and then build a garden to commemorate her sister who died in the camp.
Yun Ling is a complex character, her past is revealed slowly and in layers. Several times she reveals something that shifts the understanding the reader had of who she is, her actions and her motivations. At the start of the novel she is a powerful but benign figure known for her clear and literary judgements which are published and respected in equal measure. Her staff mourn her retirement and her friends welcome her back to the Malaysian highlands where she reclaims a house she hasn’t lived in for years. She has a constant physical reminder of her time in the Japanese camp and mentions an inability to sleep but she appears to have survived relatively intact.
Gradually the flashbacks reveal more about the house and garden in the mountains, why Yun Ling has retired and her experiences in the camp, the life of Aritomo the master gardener and the realities of life in the dark days of the Emergency. Nothing is quite as it seems.
It’s a novel with a slow and stately pace that suits the tale of memory, legacy, recovery and regeneration perfectly. The precision of Aritomo’s garden is matched by the intricate detail that Eng achieves in his characters. The over-arching sense of place spans the whole book beautifully – there were times I felt I could close my eyes and see the whole estate laid out before me.
Just as the beautiful and precise garden is surrounded by the wild and terrorist-filled forest though, the complex characters of Yun Ling and those around her are tranquil on the surface and turmoil, secrets and guilt beneath.
As the book is made up of layers that are revealed throughout the text, that is as much as I am going to say about its plot. Sharing any of its twists or reveals would really spoil it and remove some of its carefully sustained power. All I will say is that I found the reason for Yun Ling’s flashbacks heartbreaking and I had to occasionally put the book down after a plot or character shift to absorb what it meant for the story as a whole. I felt wholly engaged as I read this, something I feel surprisingly infrequently with modern novels and which made me feel somehow more complete as a reader.
SPOILER, ONLY HIGHLIGHT THIS TEXT IF YOU HAVE READ THE BOOK: Because I came to this with background knowledge, I did (from about 30 pages in) suspect Yun Ling of qualities that wouldn’t be revealed until close to the end of the book. This is not in any way a criticism of Tan’s writing* it is just that I was always told there are no innocents in a POW camp. Innocents don’t survive. Based on this I didn’t implicitly trust Yun Ling as I think most Western readers would and some of the reveals, based around her not being a harmless and pure survivor, didn’t surprise me at all. From early on in the book I was waiting to see what or who she had sacrificed for freedom. Tan’s writing* is so absorbing though that this assumption didn’t actually detract from the reading at all, while I was expecting these reveals the way each one was done was almost flawless and left me feeling nothing but admiration for their subtlety.
So, I brought a lot of background knowledge to my reading of The Gardens of Evening Mists and it only added to my enjoyment of a powerful, delicate and beautiful study of light and dark in the human soul. It left me with a real appreciation for Tan Twan Eng’s craftsman-like approach to writing, answers to some of the questions my family’s stories raised and a very strong desire to read his previous book, The Gift of Rain. I’d love to see this win the Man Booker though the pace might put some readers off.
* A quick note about names: Tan Twan Eng like most Malaysian people does not use Western style name formatting. Tan is his family name, Twan Eng are his first and middle names. The same is true of his character Teoh Yun Ling who is Yun Ling to friends and Judge Teoh in her professional life – just as someone might be Ruth to their friends but Judge Robinson in court. Referring to Eng’s writing rather than Tan’s writing is wrong!
Rating: 9/10 (Book Review Scale)
My reviews of the other Man Booker 2012 titles:
Winner – Bring up the Bodies