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When Judge Teoh takes early retirement from work she knows that she's hiding from her past, her present and even her future. She leaves Kuala Lumpur behind and takes to the hills, returning to a place where she knew emotional and physical extremes - great pain, peace and rebirth as well as the great love of her lifetime and good friendships that persisted for decades. Returning to Malaysia's Cameron Highlands, she goes to the place she loves - an isolated house with a beautiful but by now overgrown Japanese garden. She reveals why she's retired early to her old friend Frederick and he persuades her to record her past whilst she still has the opportunity. Her story unfolds over 350 pages, seamlessly moving between past and present, through the times and places that made her who she is. It's fiction but in no time at all I was so caught up in the story that she felt very much like a real woman telling a real story - all the more remarkable that the writer, Tan Twan Eng, is a man.
Teoh Yun Ling (Teoh is the family name - many of the names are 'backwards' so prepare to be occasionally rather confused) and her sister Yun Hong came from a well-to-do 'Straights Chinese' family - Malaya's English speaking local elite in the colonial era. On a trip to Japan before the Second World War, the two sisters visit Japanese gardens. The younger sister Yun Hong falls in love with the structure and precision of the Japanese designs and they vow to one day make their own Japanese garden but they never got the chance. The sisters were captured by the Japanese following the invasion of Malaya and sent to a work camp hidden away at an unknown location. When the war ends in Japanese defeat only one prisoner gets out of the camp alive - Yun Ling. She is tortured by the memories of what was done to her, what she saw in the camp and by what she had to do to survive. We don't know until very late in the book how she got away and how her survival is linked to the man she tracks down several years later to ask for help.
After the war Yun Ling escapes the pain of remembering by fleeing to England to take up a place at Cambridge studying law before returning to Malaya to prosecute war criminals. When she loses her job she heads to the Cameron Highlands to seek sanctuary with family friends and to try to keep her promise to her sister to build a Japanese garden. Staying with her father's friend Magnus, an exiled Boer from South Africa who loathes the British almost as much as Yun Ling hates the Japanese, she persuades him to intervene with his neighbour, Nakamura Aritomo. This is the man she learned of in the camp, one of the most famous garden designers in Japan and the ex-gardener of the Emperor. It's not an easy request to make. How do you ask a man from the nation who killed your sister and put you in a work camp to design a garden as a memorial to that sister?
Aritomo turns her down. He's too busy for commissions, he claims, but if she's serious about the garden she can become his apprentice. He will teach her to design her own garden instead. If asking a favour of an enemy is difficult, then how much harder to tie your life to a man you could so easily hate? Yun Ling accepts and slowly, almost without her even realising, Aritomo teaches her more about herself than about the gardens. In contrast to the peace Yun Ling finds with her hands (minus the two fingers severed in the camp) in the dirt and in the company of this philosophical artist, Malaya is still in turmoil as different factions fight for control of the country. The British are hanging on to their territory whilst 'communist terrorists' (or C.T.s) backed by the Chinese are trying to take the country for themselves. As Malaya moves inexorably towards the end of Empire and the birth of Malaysia, time seems to slow down to a snail's pace in Aritomo's garden.
Throughout the book the story moves back and forth between present and past - or rather 'pasts' since the historical story comes through in a jumble of different periods. We have Yun Ling's time in the camp juxtaposed with her apprenticeship and work with Aritomo, and all offset against her old age when she's arranging for a Japanese art historian to come and view Aritomo's art work.
I did get puzzled at times but not by the hopping around which was quite easy to follow. What puzzled me was the absence of references to when the 'present' was supposed to be. We are told that Yun Ling was born in 1923 so if she's retiring early, we can guess that this book is taking place in the early or mid 1980s but I failed to find any clues or indications to support that. Perhaps it's testimony to the timeless quality of life in the Highlands that the absence of mobile phones, internet and iPods doesn't seem unusual in the context of the story. Other than calculating the time based on assumptions about Yun Ling's age, I found ist strange that no attempt was made to anchor the story in a particular era.
I will admit that I initially struggled to get into the book in the first few chapters. The names didn't sit easily in my brain and a few times I had to flick back to remind myself who people were. But once the names settled into place, the characters took on a life of their own. The use of untranslated foreign words was a little distracting - especially since it wasn't always clear whether they were Chinese, Malay, or even Afrikaans. You need also to work at the Japanese gardening and art terminology but I'd say the effort is rewarded in full. There's no glossary and no footnotes to explain any of these untranslated terms and I am in two minds about whether I'd actually care enough to go and look them up. Generally you can guess in the context, and I know enough random words of Dutch to spot the Afrikaans.
I felt that I learned a lot about Japanese art and behaviour, literally finding my breathing slowed down when concentrating on the descriptions of how to fire a bow and arrow, or place a rock in the earth as part of a bigger plan. The information about garden design was fascinating and the descriptions of the arts of wood block printing and tattooing were intriguing.
At first I found Yun Ling to be a real 'cold fish'. My prejudices kicked in with a blast of "Men can't write women characters" because she seemed to be so controlled and unemotional that I thought "This is a woman written by a man". However, over time as we learn what Yun Ling has lived through and what secrets she has hidden and continues to hide, her self-contained and independent life of controlled emotions knits neatly in with the story of her experience. Few western female characters would be believable with the personality traits that Tan gives his heroine - but she has a higher degree of believability as an oriental, educated woman with a traumatic past.
Aritomo is a delight to read about, as he develops into a sexier cross between Mr Miyagi from Karate Kid and Yoda from Star Wars. His self-possessed confidence and his attention to training Yun Ling, break down her prejudices about him and his countrymen. Towards the end of the book his reasons for being in Malaya come under closer examination with the introduction of rumours which you can choose to accept or to reject depending on how you feel about him. His art combines the living garden and the static 'moment in time' of the woodblock print but we start to suspect that maybe there may be evidence of an art that combines the two.
I've never been to the Cameron Highlands, but I can picture the region clearly in my mind. I've never seen a Japanese archer - but again I can feel the tension in the bow, the release of the arrow and the play of tensions in the archer's body because of what I've read in this book. This book gives the reader a sense of 'borrowed experience' that's akin to the gardening art of borrowed scenery in which the garden reaches out to its surroundings to make them part of the total picture. The balance of war and peace, control and release, old and new, all build up to make a fascinating story.
The ending when it comes may well leave you with as many questions as answers. The events of the camp and the development of Yun Ling and Aritomo's relationship are both tied up neatly for the reader whilst the final few pages reveal why Yun Ling refuses to seek treatment for her medical problems, reasons that are much different from those I had suspected. There's also the dawning realisation that perhaps she has a legacy for her sister that goes beyond the rocks and plants of the garden into a more complex hint at lost treasures and people who were never what those around them believe them to be.
The Garden of Evening Mists is Tan Twan Eng's second novel. I can't help thinking his first will be going on my wishlist very soon.
Published by Myrmidon Books, February 2012 - With thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy and to Curiousbookfans.co.uk where this review first appeared