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The Garden of Evening Mists

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Malaya, 1949. After studying law at Cambrige and time spent helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals, Yun Ling Teoh seeks solace among the jungle fringed plantations of Northern Malaya where she grew up as a child.

448 pages, Hardcover

First published November 1, 2011

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About the author

Tan Twan Eng

6 books935 followers
Tan Twan Eng was born in Penang and lived in various places in Malaysia as a child. He studied law at the University of London and later worked as lawyer in one of Kuala Lumpur’s most reputable law firms; in 2016, he was an International Writer-in-Residence at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Tan's first novel, The Gift of Rain (2007), was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Greek, Romanian, Czech and Serbian. The Garden of Evening Mists (2011), his second novel, won the Man Asian Literary Prize and Walter Scott Prize, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,104 reviews
Profile Image for Scarlet.
187 reviews1,169 followers
March 7, 2016
Attempt #7:

(This is going to be a long review because I have too many things to say. I just hope it's coherent.)

Have you ever sat in a dark room listening to an intricate piece of music (like Sergey Rachmaninoff's 'Tears') and experienced a deep-seated sadness when the last note died off??

Reading The Garden of Evening Mists felt like that.

This book took me on a journey. It was turbulent and tranquil, beautiful and ugly - all at the same time - and when it was over, I found myself sitting by the window crying for reasons I cannot discern.

This is not a book for everyone, be warned. I've read some unflattering reviews and found myself agreeing with the points they make, yet I cannot give this anything less than 5. Eng has achieved a lot of super-ambitious things in 350 pages that many authors can only dream of doing, so I'm going to overlook the few flaws I encountered.

Giving a summary for this book is daunting. There are too many layers and too many interpretations. Instead, I'll tell you my version of what this book is about.

The Garden of Evening Mists is a book about conflicts, or more specifically, it's about the co-existence of antithetical things.

There's a scene where Yun Ling comes across the yin-yang symbol in Aritomo's garden, which describes how the positive and the negative are interrelated to each other. I feel this theme is manifested in the entire book.

---Remembering / Forgetting.---
When Yun Ling visits Yugiri for the first time, the garden is an escape - a place for forgetting the brutalities of war.
36 years later, when Yun Ling returns with a disease that threatens to rob her off her memories, Yugiri transforms into a temple of contemplation, a place for remembering.
(To remember when you want to forget and to forget when you want to remember... How ironic.)

---Peace / Violence---
There's something almost tangible about the stillness of Yugiri despite the guerrilla violence that's rife in the surrounding jungles. An amazing juxtaposition, if you ask me.

---The Beauty of Art / The Horrors of War---
This book could very well be a tribute to the arts of Japan. There's gardening, ukiyo-e (woodblock printing) and horimonos (tattooing). I found the cultural aspect mesmerizing.
A stark contrast to this is Yun Ling's recollection of her POW days - extremely disturbing.
Ultimately though, it's the art that stands out. I love how Eng treats it as a medium of healing, for both Yun Ling and (maybe) Aritomo.

---Love / Hate---
Yun Ling (understandably) harbors a lot of bitterness against the Japanese and yet she's drawn to the reclusive Japanese gardener. I suppose this is hypocritical behavior but I found the whole thing believable - probably because I was anticipating it. The relationship is alluded to but not explicitly spelled out (like many other things in the book), so you may miss it if you don't pay attention.

The book is slow, especially the first half. I prefer describing it as 'quiet'. There's not a lot of action happening but it still demands you pay attention, especially since Eng seems to love hinting at things rather than actually saying them.

Yun Ling comes across as emotionally detached sometimes but I think it works in her favor. The way I see it, Yun Ling is someone who has been through so much that she no longer has the capability to be emotionally fazed. Aritomo is an enigma. The more you know about him, the more unknown he becomes.

Eng has crafted a beautiful story, but if you read this expecting to find answers, you'll be disappointed. The ending is... incomplete. There are a few facts, a few hints, but no answers. This is going to sound stupid, but I loved the unfinished ending. You see, every character in this book has had an unfulfilled life so it makes sense that the story would be unfulfilled as well. Like Yun Ling realizes in the end, sometimes its better to cherish what you know than chase after things you don't know.

And I've finally figured out what made me so sad about that ending. Something to do with the temporariness of time. Whether it's people or places or memories, time leaves everything behind, doesn't it??

The Garden of Evening Mists is not a book with universal appeal, but I loved the feel of it. Easily the best book I've read this year, and one I'll cherish for a long time to come.
Profile Image for Adina .
890 reviews3,543 followers
January 14, 2023
Ebook and audiobook narrated by Anna Bentinck

I’ve been in a reviewing hiatus for a few weeks and I admit it hasn’t been easy to find the motivation to write again. I’ve postponed writing my first review of the year for one week but I have to start somewhere so here it goes.

I wanted to begin the year with a 5* rating and The Garden of Evening Mists is the chosen one. The author, Tan Twan Eng, was born in Penang, Malaysia and he studied law in London. He writes his books in English, which made him eligible for Booker Prize, for which he was shortlisted in 2012. Unfortunately, The Garden of Evening Mists did not win, Hillary Mantell took the honours that year.

The novel is set in Malaysia in the late 1980s, with flashbacks from 1949 and WW2. Yun Ling Teoh, a well-regarded Supreme Court judge, decides to retire earlier from practice and to return to Yugiri , a Japanese garden and house she has inherited in the lush Cameron Highlands. Her return is the perfect opportunity for flashbacks from her life. Yun Ling is the daughter of an influential Malaysian-Chinese family and grew up in the highland plantations of Malaya. During the WW2 she was interned in a Japanese camp, where she suffers through unspeakable horrors. After she survives, she becomes a lawyer specialised in the trail of Japanese War Criminals. During the Civil War, which followed WW2, Yun Ling decides to temporary live with a South African family friend and his family on a tea plantation in the jungle where she grew up. Near the plantation lived a Japanese man, Aritomo, the former chief Gardener of the Emperor. The woman decides to ask Aritomo to build a Japanese garden in the memory of her sister, killed in the same camp she was taken. The gardener refuses, but instead, asks her to be his apprentice.

The Garden of Evening Mists is one of those slow beauties. I do not think reading this novel can be rushed, I had to take in each page slowly, to allow myself to be immersed in the Malay jungle and into the events presented in the book. That does not mean the novel is boring. There are quite a few dramatic events that the characters had to go through. However, between the action, I savoured some beautiful writing about gardening, Japanese philosophy, love and redemption. The characters were rounded and different, each with their preconceptions and struggles. They evolved through the years and by the end, I felt I knew some of them. I even cried a few times, something that does not happen too often.
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews3,221 followers
October 19, 2016
I get why this was nominated for the Booker; I also get why it didn’t win. Not that winning the Booker is any kind of indisputable endorsement that a novel is truly first rate and destined to become a classic – I get why The Luminaries was nominated but I’ll never get why it won (unless the competition that year was uniformly ordinary) and the same is true for me of half a dozen past winners. There was so much that was good about this novel and yet while I consistently enjoyed it I never quite loved it. I’m still trying to put my finger on why. Maybe it’s because there’s just a bit too much going on? Maybe because the relentlessly sumptuous prose was sometimes decorative when it might have been more revealing? I remember one indicative sentence when a man’s touch on a woman’s back was described as like a dragonfly settling on a leaf. It’s a picturesque image but essentially meaningless if you stop and think about it. In what way is a woman’s back like a leaf? And how is the touch of a dragonfly different from say that of a mosquito? Sometimes the prose could be just a bit too self-consciously pretty.

The Garden of Evening Mists is essentially a love story which incorporates an awful lot of fascinating historical information about Malaya where its set and especially regarding the Japanese invasion of that country during WW2. The narrator is Supreme Court judge Teoh Yun Ling, daughter of a prosperous Chinese Malaysian family, and the sole survivor of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. One of the mysteries at the heart of the novel is why she was the lone survivor. After the war she becomes a merciless prosecutor of war criminals - her experiences at the camp have left her loathing everything Japanese. Except there’s a problem. Her sister who died in the camp harboured an ambition to build a garden after visiting the gardens of Kyoto. When Yun Ling discovers the Japanese Emperor’s former gardener, Aritomo is living in Malaya and has built a garden there she asks him to build her a garden in memory of her dead sister.

Yun Ling and Aritomo, the two central characters, are both morally ambivalent, both hiding shaming secrets, and at times outright unlikeable, which makes them fascinating. They are also somewhat humourless which was a shame. Aritomo never quite came alive for me. It felt like he was a character who has featured in other books – the enigmatic wise solitary ageing artist who has an answer for everything but reserves his wisdom for one entitled visitor. He’s also a kind of conduit of many of the more mystical facets of Japanese culture – archery, the tea ceremony, woodcuts, tattooing, Zen philosophy. It’s his task in the novel to redeem the Japanese in the eyes of the harsh and unforgiving Yun Ling.

One of the novel’s central themes is the precarious relationship between remembering and forgetting. This is the novel's greatest triumph. There’s a lovely scene where Aritomo takes Yun Ling to a remote ruined temple which a handful of nuns preserve. The novel is consistently stressing the importance of preserving memory, albeit in unorthodox ways. The garden itself is a kind of spirit and memory map. It’s also an exciting novel. The presence in the country of rebel communist bands means safety can never be taken for granted. It works well as a mystery novel too. The mysteries building in intensity and artfully revealed at the opportune moments. Basically, there’s an awful lot to like about The Garden of Evening Mists and Tan Twan Eng is a hugely accomplished and fascinating writer who I will definitely read again. In fact I liked it better than The Luminaries so perhaps, after all, I don't get why it didn't win the Booker.
Profile Image for Dolors.
540 reviews2,280 followers
October 22, 2017
Even the most mundane of lives are made of irreconcilable moments that give shape to the branches of memory, some blossom with scented flowers made of beauty and wonder and others rot in the stale waters of corrosive guilt, anger and impairing pain. But how to exist in the present when one is dragged away by the turbulent currents of a hapless past? How can the rising tide of atrocious history reach serene stillness in the pond of time? And what is real and what are mere reflections of the coping mechanism that keeps the path open to sanity when confronted with the vile monster of war?
Truth might be an artificial chimera but in The Garden of Evening Mists, the Goddess of Memory and the Goddess of Forgetting walk hand in hand as twin sisters in an eternal colliding of opposites, infusing the stolen present with the equilibrium between the smothering burden of past and the gaping void of forgetfulness. For “what is a person without memories?” A wandering ghost, a stillborn lost in limbo, a paper lantern made of woodblock prints that flickers with uncertainty mimicking the impermanence of everything in life, a vacant stare that neglects the victims of amputated lives that can only be invoked through the memories of those who were spared, blessed or cursed by the ignominy of survival.

Judge Yun Ling has spent forty years prosecuting the same Japanese war criminals that held her and her sister Yun Hong hostages in a World War II prison camp located in the depths of the Malaysian jungle. The indescribable suffering during her internment robbed her of her sister, her identity and of her future. After years of taking legal revenge without managing to subdue the life-consuming beast of shame and anger, Yun Ling returns to Yugiri or The Garden of Evening Mists, an oasis between daybreak and sunset and the only place where the Chinese Judge can bask in the roundness of everything beautiful and sorrowful about life through the teachings of Aritomo, the renowned gardener of the Japanese Emperor whose mysterious past resembles the art of setting stones drowned in water, calm on the surface but hiding swirling secrets underneath.

Twan Eng Tan masters the Shakkei or Borrowed Scenery technique in multiple levels to create the living work of art of Yun Ling’s story. In the same way that Yugiri takes views outside the garden and integrates the surrounding natural world playing with the perspective of light and shadow and dissolves discordant colors into the harmony of misty twilights, the reader borrows the memories of deceivingly unconnected characters to reconstruct Yun Ling’s past and reconcile it with her future.
It is in the space between releasing the bowstring and the arrow hitting the sun, in the eternal moment when lit faces are caressed by moonbeams and soaked with showers of sparkling meteors, in the song of the flapping wings of the heron gliding weightlessly with smoky plumage or in the echo of Shelley and Yeat’s poetry dancing to the rhythm of Yddrasil Quartet’s Larghetto where the contrived borders that separate countries and confront families, friends and lovers possessed by the frenzy of war vanish into tea scented air.

Time is running out and Yun Ling’s restless mind will have to weave scattered paths of ancient maps together that will take her to the lands of Norse mythology, inside caves that give shelter to bird nests and invisible Chinese temples, and up the hills of the Japanese arts of gardening, tattooing and archery in order to attain a peaceful symmetry between Memory and Forgetfulness, Truth and Deceit, Guilt and Blamelessness. But before the route to peace is unraveled, Yun Ling will have to forgive herself for surfing the turbid seas of self-preservation and let go of the paper lantern that is ablaze with a remorseful conscience.

“The palest ink will surpass the memory of men” says the Chinese proverb, and Tan Eng Twan proves the saying to be true in penning a work of art that creates an exotic tapestry of characters, eastern and western mysticism and a lyrical texture that grants infinity to memories worth preserving. And Yugiri, this sacred place whose rivers carry imprinted prayers, is the missing piece of the puzzle that will transform a novel into a paradise in the afterlife where tattoo lotuses of ink and musk will bloom in the garden of any reader’s heart, imprinted forever, impassive to the passage of time, never to be forgotten.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews600 followers
September 2, 2017
I'm trying to retire from writing reviews--write shorter abbreviated ones --but the books I've been reading make this very difficult. SO THIS IS DIFFICULT....

This is another notable - epic -book I've read this year. WONDERFUL!!!

Great setting in the lush Malaysian Highlands.....with a Male Japanese Gardner and a retired Female Chinese Judge suffering from an illness...at the center of this story.

The judge - Yun Ling, asks the gardener, Aritomo, to the design a garden for her to honor her deceased sister's love of Japanese gardens. He refuses -- but asks her to be his apprentice. And the story takes off ....our journey begins.

Tan Twan Eng is a gifted writer. Sometimes I felt the writing was a little over the top with descriptions but most of it was beautiful.

This is historical fiction is filled with light & dark - ying&yang- character driven -friendships - love - the tragedy of war - and everyone trying to recover-- be it by trying to remember to heal -or forget to heal.

"There is a goddess of Memory, Mnemosyne;
but none of Forgetting.
Yet there should be, as they are twin sisters, twin powers, and walk
on either side of us, disputing for sovereignty over us and who we are, all the way until death." RICHARD HOLMES .....from "A Meander Through Memory and Forgetting".

Profile Image for Debbie W..
761 reviews569 followers
May 24, 2023
Why I chose to listen to this audiobook (available on Hoopla):
1. I saw this one reviewed on Goodreads; I'm intrigued by stories about gardens; and,
2. May 2023 is my "People of the Far East Month" (country featured: Malaysia).

1. a strong character-driven novel! As I learned more about Yun Ling and Aritomo's backgrounds and secrets, the more I came to deeply care about them;
2. author Tan Twan Eng expertly transported me back in time. From a brutal Japanese slave labor camp to the peaceful sanctuary of Yugiri (The Garden of Evening Mists), a Japanese garden created within the jungles and tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands during 1951 Malaya while the Communist guerilla war raged nearby, Tan Twan Eng shows the reader elegantly-rich historical detail through the eyes of his characters;
3. Tan Twan Eng also writes such powerful descriptions that I could strongly sense all those vivid details; and,
4. I'm sure the print copy is excellent, but I highly recommend listening to this audiobook! Narrator Anna Bentinck is so believable in her phrasing, her intonations, her use of various voices - she had me entranced throughout!

Overall Thoughts:
I was so absorbed in this story that I just couldn't wait to get back to listening to it whenever I had to step away. I also had an extremely difficult time writing this review, simply because I know that I can't do this unique tale justice. I do know; however, it will be a most memorable read for me for a long time.
If you prefer historical fiction featuring strong characters, then I highly recommend this book! This is truly a fine piece of literary work.
Profile Image for Elaine.
808 reviews373 followers
October 2, 2012
Extraordinarily evocative of the Malaysian highlands setting -- the landscape, weather, smells, flora and fauna are so vividly depicted that you look up from the kindle surprised to be in autumnal New York.

If only the characters had as much life as the herons, tea plants, jungle, etc.. But no, none of the peripheral characters -- Magnus, Emily, the narrator's family, Fredrik, Ah Cheong -- are more than cardboard. As for the main characters, Aritomo -- the Japanese gardener, printmaker, tatoo artist, archer and possible spy -- is an inscrutable man of few words but deep teachings, i.e., a bundle of cliches (and flat behind those cliches). The narrator seems cold at her core.

I never thought I could read a WWII prison camp narrative, especially one involving comfort women and mass killings, and be unmoved and almost impatient...but Garden of the Evening Mists did that for me. True, the narrator has her reasons for keeping her distance from her story, but she is so restrained as to be frigid and stiff (when not petulantly angry). Even her love stories are merely notes on a page-- not felt.

And the pacing crawls. All the twists and turns are at the very end, and by then, you're a little sick of the fetishism of Japanese arts and endless descriptions of gardening. The very weird dynamic at the book's core is that the Japanese mastery of gardening and art (including the very creepy art of whole body tatooing and preserving those tatoos after death) is unquestioningly revered, even as the Japanese are committing war crimes and devestating large swathes of Asia. Similarly, the book, in having the native Malay laborers that realize the Japanese gardener's art (and work the white man's tea plantations)be totally characterless and invisible, ends up valorizing without really interrogating the existing hierarchies.

The only part of the book that really sings is the interlude that it is a love story between a young Japanese kamikaze pilot and a senior (male) Japanese official. That was heartfelt, romantic, poignant. Revealingly, that tells you something about a good book the author could have written -- if he didn't feel it would be more correct? or something? to tell us the story of a female Chinese former prisoner instead.

Profile Image for Praj.
314 reviews811 followers
July 22, 2016

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." -- Milan Kundera

In the evening when the clock strikes six, to the rampant chirping of sparrows the church bells ring, filling the languid air with its magnificence. These days the regal resonance of the bells is buried under the boisterous traffic, yet when the sparrows chirp at six in the evening, I know the bells are ringing. When memories flood within and tears swell up in the eyes, I love sitting by the ocean; the coquettish waves flirting with the moss covered rocks. Watching the ocean grumble at the setting sun, I think of Aritomo. If the stones really had soul, would these wet stones remember the time when a child had scrapped her knee on them while collecting sea shells? Would the ocean remember how humans uncaringly restricted it glorious waves by several feet so houses could be build on the land? Does the stylish curves of horimono, ink the memories of its earliest crude stigmatization when its embraces the skin of aristocracy? The saltiness of the ocean that slapped my face, the juice of a lemon glistening over the sliced papaya, Frederik’s noisy coffee slurps, the whiteness of the cranes on Tatsuji’s arm ,Magnus’s songs from the Cape; filled my senses. The moon had appeared greeting the sun and I wondered what if the moon could speak. Would this beaming star agree to be the prime witness to Yun Ling’s melancholy? Could it narrate Yun Hong’s nightmare? Does the hand cries in the memory of its two severed fingers? Memory is an amusing thing. Like the mulish demeanour of a passionate love bestowing copious tears of pain and ecstasy, memory becomes a convoluted burden. The escape route may look favourable but the notion of emptiness shudder the fortitude. Puzzles were formed on whether it was the chill in the night air or the musings of Yugiri that gave me goose bumps. The waves were infuriated at the moonlit spectacle. Time had come for me to walk home and draft this appraisal. But, I resisted the very act. How would I be able to write? Especially when the thought of Yugiri was itself overwhelming, penning down my opinion would throw me over the edge. Then, what if? What if someday Mnemosyne decides to abandon me? Would her twin be as lovable? Will Lesmosyne be able to take care of me?

Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals up the gap, and the world is in shadows again.

Japan had signed the Peace Treaty, but treachery did not depart from its Malayan abode. The external warfare had trickled into the conflicted communist corridors of the Malayan Emergency. Questions over the authenticity of “bumiputera” (true sons of the soil) had been raised. Old countries may have had died, but their staunch loyal memories had bypassed the generational course. War had not left the residents of Cameron Highlands and the rest of the Malayan realm. War had not left Yun Ling. The warmth of menstruation had freed her unyielding body, but the memories of the war had still shackled her soul. Each time when a judgement was passed from the Supreme Court bench or files were researched at the War Crimes Tribunal; Yun Ling fought a war of her own, chaotic memories propelling her into a perplexed vortex where naivety became a circumstantial victim in the hunt for perpetrators. The sight of faces, the humming of the rainforest, the stench of the “logs”, the night air lit in moonlight were patches of memories that were knitted into a quilt of a horrific past failing to produce warmness to Yun Ling. The leathery odour of Magnus’s eye patch revealed a life torn apart by war and still in the process of being accepted by his adopted homeland, its memories adorning the walls of a graceful house at the Majuba Estate and in the very last flavours swirling in a cup of tea. The remnants of war could be seen in Frederik’s blue eyes cramping his spirit and in the stillness of the mountains above the clouds that spoke about the quandary of an Emperor’s gardener who now was far away from the Emperor’s reign but not far from the love for the aesthetically woven gardens. War had not left the Malayan landscape where the recurrent question, “Have you ever gone home since then?” was greeted with nostalgic tears revealing the mistiness of consoling memoirs, clouding the joyful sunshine with poignant trepidation. To slaughter someone else’s children, so that your children could survive; to rape someone else’s woman so that the women in your household would be safe guarded and to bulldoze other houses so that you could build yours. Is this a world where one dreams to build lovable homes? Is this how one constructs a secure world? How can one find kindness and love in a home that is built on a guiltless grave? Will the present patches of sunlight be able to eradicate the looming sinister shadows of a horrendous past?

The rainwater may wash the physical remains from the surface of the earth. The graceful showers of the rain may clean the grimy blood stains from the feeble soil. But, can it expunge the memories embedded in the heart of the earth? Dig up the dampness and one can view the dryness of bones peeking through the layers of clammy soil. Dig up the graves and can you hear the agonizing cries of jugun ianfu (military comfort women) as atrocious rapes ravaged their souls along with their adolescent bodies. Dig up the earth on which victorious flags proudly flap through the wind and one can hear the howls of innocent lives being annihilated as the defenseless heavens watched the brutality on earth. I am quite certain that if the pouring rain would in reality sponge down the polluted dregs, the ethnic populace of Malaya would pray for the rain to wash away all their facial features along with their caste and creed taxonomy, for no longer would they have to time and time again prove their allegiance for their cherished domicile. The “cherry blossoms” tainted by the blood oozing from the numerous death poems darted into the cerulean heavens; the delicate scent of the cherry blossoms lingering over the affectionate waves of the sea, the rising sun illuminating the love residing within Tatsuji’s excruciating memories as the boat sailed into the horizon looking upon the two forlorn cranes circling in the open the skies.

The garden has to reach inside you. It should change your heart, sadden it, uplift it. It has to make you appreciate the impermanence of everything in life....

The embellished pages of Sakuteiki flickered with every stone that was scrupulously placed under Aritomo’s keen scrutiny. From every fractions of the garden scenery borrowed from the inspirational elements of nature, one could see the smile brighten on Yun Hong’s face. Like the heron that never left the pond, the teachings of shakkei had found permanence within Yun Ling’s heart. The lush trails of the garden had reached within Yun Ling; a paradise that she and Yun Hong had dreamed had been sketched in Yugiri. Aritomo constructed a heaven among the magnanimous mountains questioning the cowardice skies for being a silent spectator to the hellish existence of humans on the earth. Does one throw away an entire bushel due to a single mouldy apple? Does one chop a whole body due to one gangrene infested foot? Then why do we harbour abhorrence for an entire nation due to some rotten elements? Nothing is permanent. Beauty is ephemeral and so is sadness. The principles of mono no aware prevailed in the aesthetic ambiance acknowledging the enlightenment of the century old Buddha statue which had bypassed the malice of time. From the callousness of war comes the sagacity of peace. The frostiness of hate dies away when the warmness of love awakens. The beauty of a horimono shines through the misery of a bleeding skin and the exquisiteness of an ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) rises from the ache of a chopped tree, its wood being meticulously craved while the splinters clutch onto the memories of a once budding tree. The swift arrows released from the bow imparted lessons of life hinting for the body and mind to live in utmost harmony. Yun Ling’s body and mind was at war unaware of the love that would eventually walk from the perfect curves of the garden melting away the simmering anger into the equanimity of the Usugumo pond. Through the unattractiveness of Yun Ling’s antagonism came the radiance of Aritomo’s love synchronizing the mind and body into an unforgettable bond of greatest admiration and compassion deeper than the darkest shade of a horimono ink, radiating the relationship between a pupil and a mentor; between a man and a woman encumbered under the burdensome stones of obstinate memories. Does the Japanese garden ever kowtow in the honour of the memories of its Chinese ancestry?

Gardens like Yugiri’s are deceptive. They’re false. Everything here has been thought out and shaped and built. We’re sitting in one of the most artificial places you can find...

The artistic origins of a Japanese garden rests in the principles of shakkei(borrowed scenery). Part by part, scene by scene, shapes are calculated, panoramic dimensions are artfully weighed,imperfections are cautiously hidden and imitating the forces of nature an heavenly art is created through the shades of quietude and edifying aesthetics. The opaque stones that cart all the clandestine memories are deceptively submerged in the pond, the elusive movements of the koi fish cunningly pleading the heart to liberate the reins of the resolute hatred so life can finally exhale in the sphere of genuine forgiveness.
Our memories are a 3-dimensional painting similar to the assemblage of a Japanese garden. Over a period of time when the memoirs swell up a pandemonium, we meticulously bury our ghastly memories deep within our heart setting a dais on which we then construct a sanctuary embracing the rosy sweetness of our wonderful memories. The line between fact and fiction is misplaced when memories can no longer differentiate between what was real and what were only reflections in life . Aren't the books we read, a form of shakkei too, a form of deception? The literature amalgamates the essence of realism with borrowed imagination churning out a tome where a sequence of mottled emotions are released and memories are created that would last even after the book has withered with time. If so, then at what point in the game of memories does deception becomes a burdened criminal? When does the ignominy of memories weigh down the sacredness of humanity? And, if memories do become dishonourable making one frets to acknowledge it, in that case why make such shameful memories in the first place? Ask the British? Ask the Japanese? Ask the communist hidden in the trenches of the rainforest? Ask those military officials who blatantly veiled the sadistic crime of harbouring sex slaves under the civilized titular functioning of “comfort women”? Were the deep terrains of the quarry mortified of its memories when it dug tombs of several powerless POWs for a couple of Golden Lilies?

For what is a person without memories? A ghost, trapped between worlds, without an identity, with no future, no past..

Proficiently with heartfelt tenderness, Tan Twan Eng breathes life into Teoh Yun Ling, Aritomo’s inspired unruffled gardens, Emily’s nightly musical notes, Magnus’s enjoyable utterance of “baie dankie”,Tatsuji’s crane horimono adorning his arm and the landscape of a country that after been bitterly ravaged by decades of fierce hostilities courageously rose like a phoenix treasuring its painful memories deep down in the frigid hub of its earth. The journey of Yun Ling from being a POW during the Japanese occupation to a Supreme Court Judge resembles the sturdiness of a tree that had just lost its last leaf, agonizingly infertile, hitherto had the strength to once again revel in new shoots of foliage, awaiting a revolutionizing spring. Like the chaotic rocky path of a wildly grown forest, it was in the need of a serene Japanese garden. The South African import; the arum lilies that embraced the Malayan soil as it robustly grew standing tall approximated the existence of its planter – Magnus, the sweet fragrance conveying memoirs of his homeland. The petals blossomed to the Larghetto from Chopin’s piano caressing a heavy-eyed Emily; its colours animated as they touched Frederik’s memories. The wheeling water echoed the sensitivities of a surreptitious immigrant, the hidden melodies illuminating Aritomo’s artistic brilliance and humane empathy. The time obedient spider whirled silken threads of love, hate, anger, peace, war and humanity into an adhesive mesh of memories; a web so powerful that it would last for a lifetime. Nothing in this life is everlasting, not even memories, yet it is only the inevitable bundle of memories that a man truly owns in his lifetime. Emptiness is indeed ghostly. The Evening Mists had settled on the elegant Pavilion of Heaven, tears from the Cloud Forest glistening among the precious dew on the tranquil Wisps of Clouds.

The fragments of the war had somehow found a trail to reach within the core of my being, muddling with the reverberations of the glorious church bells. A quiescent conflict was simmering in my consciousness as I was penning these sentences; a war of words, inequitable confrontations of my sentiments and a battle of my sanity trying to comprehend the cruelty of mankind in a world that lights up to the serene sounds of birds at sunrise and to the delicate scent of dewy gardens. I’m glad that I finally wrote this review. For then, if one fine day Mnemosyne abandons me and the whispers from this book become unfamiliar; there will be someone who will be able to read from a bounded journal the sanctity of my words etched forever in the fluttering pages. Just like the purity of the garden that was etched in Yugiri, its beauty prevailing among the mountains long after the pond had dried up; its memories lingering in the palest inky shades of a horimono.

Thank you , Tan Twan Eng!

Profile Image for Lynne King.
494 reviews676 followers
September 9, 2016
Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals up the gap, and the world is in shadows again.

I have indeed been touched by the hand of grace in discovering this perfect, elegant, lyrical and thought-provoking book. I feel as if I have discovered the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Such a tour de force. How can I possibly describe the impact that this work has had on me? It has unearthed thoughts, passions and emotions in me that I didn’t even know that I possessed. Where can I begin in this magical world of prose? That is indeed the dilemma for me. The difficulty in this particular case is that the elements are so diverse and the powerful tool of memory has come into the equation in many different forms.

I have never empathized so much with an individual such as Yun Ling (A/K as Judge Teoh in her working life) before. She was Straits Chinese and spoke English. I find her quite unique and in my eyes she is a true heroine but interestingly enough as the novel progressed, I found that her thoughts of survival were more powerful than certain well-defined emotions, such as sibling love, as that of her sister Yun Hong.

Yun Ling suffers from two kinds of memories – those she wishes to forget, such as the brutal treatment she received whilst interned in the slave labour camp run by the Japanese in Malaya during the Second World and those she wishes to retain. In the early part of the novel in the flashbacks, it is the former, but as we proceed through her life to the present day, there are memories she wishes to retain and writes them down so that she will remember them. As a judge she started having problems formulating sentences and forgetting words. After neurological tests she was told that she was suffering from a degenerative condition of the brain called primary progressive aphasia, i.e. losing the capability to understand words and sentences that are heard or read. That then dementia would arrive. She had been told that this condition would probably come within a year. Hence the reason for her early retirement.

This book has an exotic plot in that it centres on a magnificent garden called Yugiri, which translates to “evening mists”, hence the rather splendid title of the book. It is based in the lush highlands of Malaya and covers a period of forty or so years after the end of the war. Aritomo, the former gardener of the Emperor of Japan (who eventually turned out and proved to be more than that), developed and tended this magnificent tranquil place. His name was well known and many people from the outside world wished to see the garden but he preferred that it be kept a private haven. Yun Ling’s sister had died in the slave labour camp where she was horribly abused and the former wishes to have a memorial built for her in Yugiri but Aritomo declines. He suggests another solution: that she become his apprentice so that she can achieve this aim herself.

Aritomo’s neighbours are Magnus Pretorious (a south African who had fought in the Boer War, lost an eye there and wore an eye patch, and owns the Majuba Tea Estate) and his Chinese wife Emily. They are a vital link in Aritomo’s life. Frederik, Magnus’ nephew, proves to be the one permanent fixture in Yun Ling’s life and a very good friend.

But there is so much intrigue in this book and it soon takes on the fabric of a multi-faceted detective novel as Yun Ling continually tries to find the camp where her sister died. She even becomes a researcher with the War Crimes Tribunal to ensure that the Japanese responsible for their crimes were accountable; due to her diligence many are found guilty and subsequently hanged. Then she became a judge and continues with this work.

When Yun Ling first meets Aritomo, circumstances cause them to become involved but they were more like collaborators. Both had something to hide and both still had anger, and in the end it was the ancient tradition of horimono that proved to be the deciding factor. When Aritomo mysteriously disappears into the jungle one evening questions are asked. Why and for what reason, and why was he never found? I found Aritomo to be a fascinating individual. He tried, on the surface, to remain uninvolved in the atrocities committed by the Japanese during the war. One conversation with Yun Ling was:

He scratched the pebbles on the bank with the tip of his walking stick. “Before I met you, before you came here, I never knew anyone personally who had lost friends or family in the Occupation. Oh, I knew of those here who had been brutalized by my people - the men and women in the villages, the workers here, even Magnus and Emily. But I kept myself above all that. I kept out everything that was unpleasant. I attended only to my garden."

Then the historian, Professor Tatsuji Yoskikawa enters the arena. Yun Ling lets him into her secret but even that results in another idea and change in direction; for he too is following his own agenda.

The symbolism in the book, the magnificent light, the woodblock prints, the heron, the Chinese lanterns and fairy tales. The two South African ridgebacks Brolloks and Bitterrgal also played their part.The atmosphere in British Malaya, particularly the jungle with the Communists hidden there and waiting to cause havoc and violence; all the individuals who lived in Malaya believing that the British would protect them against the Communists and that independence would eventually be achieved. It was a difficult time.

And the denouement? Well all I can say is my… Read this wonderful book too. You will never come across this type of book again in your life and that’s for sure.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,217 reviews1,963 followers
October 23, 2017
I think this is a remarkable novel and I was captured from the opening sentence:
"On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan."
It is essentially a historical novel which looks at the role of memory and forgetting. The protagonist and narrative voice is Teoh Yun Ling; she is a retiring Supreme Court Judge in the late 1980s. As a young woman, she and her sister were prisoners of the Japanese during World War Two. She survived and her sister did not. After the war she helps to prosecute war criminals, until the early 1950s. The larger part of the story takes place in the early 1950s when Yun Ling seeks to fulfil a promise to her sister to build a Japanese garden. She goes to the Cameron Highlands to stay with a family friend and his family on a tea plantation. Living nearby and constructing a Japanese garden is Nakamura Aritomo, a former gardener to the Emperor of Japan. He refuses a commission to build a garden for Yun Ling’s sister, but instead agrees to take on Yun Ling as an apprentice. Yun Ling begins to learn the complex art of gardening and eventually becomes Aritomo’s lover.
That is the bare bones and the novel gradually reconstructs what has happened to Yun Ling by moving seamlessly backwards and forwards and filling some of the gaps. There is of course much more to it; there is a significant communist insurgency in the early 1950s and the inter-relationships between the minor characters is very significant. There is a good deal of historical and what might be called specialist information relating to tradition and culture. A picture is gradually built as more is revealed and the reader gradually understands Aritomo’s maxim, “Every aspect of gardening is a form of deception”. He is a fascinating character with a balance of strength and flaws and in the narrative his absence is as powerful as his presence.
There was, for me, a haunting wistfulness about the whole, sometimes masking a background of savagery which Yun Ling remembers from the internment camp. She has scars both mental and physical, which are explored in relation to efforts to come to terms with the loss of her sister. Tan cites Ishiguro as an influence and that I can see, and his mission to “capture stillness on paper” is certainly partially fulfilled. There is also a stark picture of the end of Empire and colonialism all woven in. Yun Ling’s need to remember, record and piece together is driven by her own condition:
“I’m losing my ability to read and write, to understand language, any language. In a year — perhaps more, probably less — I won’t be able to express my thoughts. . . . My mental competence will deteriorate. Dementia will shortly follow, unhinging my mind.”
This all adds to the reflections on memory and forgetting, and the garden which Aritomo builds (Yugiri) is itself part of the reflections:
“The light in here seemed softer, older, the air sharp with the tang of the yellowing bamboo leaves. The turns in the track disoriented not only our sense of direction, but also our memories, and within minutes I could almost imagine that we had forgotten the world from which we had just come.”
“Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals up the gap, and the world is in shadows again”
The writing is beautiful whilst exploring atrocity and savagery; the lush greenness of the Cameron Highlands Tan captures very well. All in all a great novel.
Profile Image for Samadrita.
295 reviews4,676 followers
July 26, 2014
"For after the rain, when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams, with their convex gleams,
Build up the blue dome of Air
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise, and unbuild it again."
- P.B. Shelley

The heron preens itself majestically, perched delicately at the edge of the pond, having found the familiarity of a home at last after miles of mateless flight. Gold-flecked koi fishes dart surreptitiously just below the surface, disrupting the lotus leaves. Wisps of rain-bearing clouds and the mountains meld into each other's embrace in a rare moment to become a mist-robed goddess and render the vista an acute resemblance with a ukiyo-e painting, a charming illusion not even a discerning eye can remain immune to. Unwilling to pay the dues exacted by aphasia, Yun Ling hears the fading whispers of times gone by - unspeakable horrors etched across the soft palate of her consciousness she'd dearly like to forget and fond remembrances of the ones who sustained the flame of empathy in their hearts while the symphony of death and devastation reached its crescendo all around the Malay peninsula. The beautiful and fragile landscape of Yugiri lies forgotten in the wake of Aritomo's perplexing disappearance, but his decrepit, untended garden stands as a testimony to his lifelong devotion to a dying art form, to his solemn resolve of remaining humane at a time when savagery was the norm.

One war replaces another as the ruthless Communist guerrillas commence a new reign of terror at the end of the Japanese Occupation. Peace remains that idealized mirage in a desert, forever out of reach. The prospect of succumbing to an acute hatred of the ones who caused her misery tempts, but Yun Ling struggles to hold on to her sanity and conscience in the grey abyss trapped between light and dark. Her faith in Aritomo wavers time and again but she lets her skin become the last canvass of his horimono art anyway.

Did Aritomo's loyalty lie with Emperor Hirohito all along? Or had he simply ignored the obligations imposed by notions of race, gender, skin color, and nationality to respond to that primordial voice of reason every time it had called out to him to do the right thing? Will Yun Ling ever be able to forgive herself for surviving the atrocities that claimed her sister's life? Will Yun Hong find the peace and dignity in death that she was denied as a 'comfort woman' at the hands of her Japanese captors?

In her twilight years, Yun Ling realizes that these questions will continue to ricochet off the walls of her consciousness time and again until the day she breathes her last. But she is no longer haunted by their echoes. The war had claimed victims on all sides and nearly every one was complicit in the collective barbarity of it all. Her festering psychological wounds will never truly heal but she finds contentment in calm acceptance of this baffling duality of life - the juxtaposed coexistence of kindness and cruelty, love and loathing, memory and oblivion, the human capacity for creation and destruction.
"Are all of us the same, I wonder, navigating our lives by interpreting the silences between words spoken, analysing the returning echoes of our memory in order to chart the terrain, in order to make sense of the world around us?"

Reconciled to history's ironies, Yun Ling now knows that the world will forever rotate on its axis of disastrous decisions and terrible consequences for all. The relentless flow of time will weather away all the damage that had seemed indelible once. Remembering Aritomo's words, she will cling to a greater purpose with every last bit of strength if and when the cycle of madness starts all over again. Because nestled in the heart of the mountains in Tanah Rata lies the frayed dream of her refuge from the brutalities of the outside world - the slumbering garden of evening mists which patiently waits for her to awaken it to the magical touch of life once again.
Profile Image for بثينة العيسى.
Author 23 books25.9k followers
July 11, 2020
يبدو أن الذاكرة تتحرك بشكلٍ لولبي، وأن الأشياء التي حدثت لنا سوف تحدث بداخلنا إلى الأبد.

كيف يمكنك المضيّ في العالم مشدودًا إلى كل هذه الذاكرة؟ سلاسل تصلصلُ بين قدميك، مرساة تجذبك أبدًا إلى تحت. ومع ذلك، عندما تبدأ في فقدان ذاكرتك ستفهم بأن جحيم الذاكرة أفضل بكثير من جنة النسيان، ربما لأن شرطنا البشري يتحقق من خلاله، ولأننا بلا قصصنا مجرد أشباح.

هذه رواية آسرة.. عن الناجية الوحيدة من معسكر اعتقال ياباني إبان احتلال اليابان للملايو، ينتهي بها الأمر متدربة لدى جنائني إمبراطور اليابان (لأن الحياة ابنة المفارقات)، حيث كل إيماءة وهمسة وظل مخفورة إلى الأبد بالماضي، وشئنا أم أبينا.. حُبلى بالمستقبل.

الترجمة أنيقة، واختيار موفق جدًا لدار سؤال.
كل الشكر.
Profile Image for Sue.
1,272 reviews549 followers
December 14, 2015
This is such a beautiful book, incorporating so much in poetic language and imagery, complex and conflicted characters dealing with such huge issues that are both personal and of human-kind. The imagery of mists, clouds, birds, sky open it up (while paradoxically closing it in at times) in the same way that Arimoto opens up his garden using his careful techniques and also opens up his life to Yun Ling (and she to him).

The epigraph to this book is perfect in setting the tone and mood. It is from "A Meander Through Memory and Forgetting" by Richard Holmes:

There is a goddess of Memory, Mnemosyne; but
none of Forgetting.
Yet there should be, as they are twin sisters,
twin powers, and walk
on either side of us, disputing for sovereignty
over us and who we
are, all the way until death.
(loc 64)

Placed as this is before the novel begins it would be easy to overlook its importance, but don't. These twins will be present throughout this novel, first as recall seems to take precedence then as forgetfulness again takes hold....and this is true for all the characters who are in the grip of alternating memory and forgetting.

And as the characters share their thoughts and stories, the prose is wonderfully poetic.

Below these words was the garden's name in
English: EVENING MISTS. I felt I was about to
enter a place that existed only in the over-
lapping of air and water, light and time.
(loc 232)

The pavilion's roof beams are sagging. The
entire structure seems to be melting, losing
the memory of its shape.
(loc 480)

For what is a person without memories? A
ghost, trapped between worlds, without an
identity, with no future, no past.
(loc 505)

The sun was breaking free of the mountains.
Over the distant treetops, a flock of birds
unspooled into a black wavering thread,
pulling across the sky.
(loc 924)

Of course I could go on and on as there so many examples of beauty in this novel. And there is also memory of the horror of war and its affects on the various peoples of the countries of the Pacific. Can this beauty help to heal? Can it quiet doubts and questions?

In one final selection I have chosen from the text, Yun Ling has discovered the water wheel in Arimoto's garden.

"There are inscriptions on the undersides of the
paddles," I said.
"Not many people would have noticed them... Prayers
carved by monks. With every turn of the wheel, the
paddles press into the water, imprinting the holy words
onto its surface," he said. "Just think--once, these
prayers were carried from the temple in the mountains
all the way to the sea, blessing all those they
floated past."
In my mind I saw the stream winding down these
mountains, leaving Yugiri, to be pulled into a river.
I saw the prayers steam off the water in the morning
sun as the river flowed through the rain forest, past
a tiger and mouse-deer drinking from it, past Malay
kampongs and aboriginal longhouses and Chinese
squatter settlements. I saw a farmer in his paddy
field by the river's edge uncrook his back and gaze
upward to the sky, feeling a cool breeze on his face
and a long moment of unexplained contentment.

(loc 1882)

I highly recommend this book to everyone. There are moments of pain, moments of sublime contentment. Much to consider and enjoy in this wonderful work.

Profile Image for Barbara.
285 reviews247 followers
July 23, 2020
5+ stars

The Garden of Evening Mists is a masterpiece on many levels. Tan Twan Eng is an artist who paints with words. He uses the skills of a weaver, a painter, a detective, to brilliantly create a complex story shrouded in beauty, mystery, memory, and deception. He takes the reader into a world of contrasts: tranquility with mayhem, beauty with ugliness, deception with candor.

I have never read a book that better describes a landscape dropping the reader into the very heart of it. The author's exquisite metaphors could not be more beautiful. The mists blocking the mountains were similar to a veil covering the past secrets of the main characters, clearing at times to reveal new details and as quickly descending and covering that troubled past. A puzzle piece fits in only to stymy the reader with the next piece that must fit in also. Eng intimates; he doesn't spell everything out.

Teah Yun Ling, a retiring supreme court judge in Kuala Lumpur and formally a prisoner in a Japanese labor camp, is writing her memoir of her time in Yuguri, a home in the Cameron Highlands of Malaya. Yuguri is owned by Aritomo, the former gardener of the emperor of Japan. As a memorial to her sister who died in the camp, Yun Ling wants to create a Japanese garden, a promise she had made to Yun Hong before she died. Having been told by Yun Hong of the renowned work of Aritomo, Yun Ling travels to the Highlands and gains permission from Aritomo to help him create this garden at
Yuguri. Their complicated relationship, secrets, and conflicting histories, create a story that is heartbreaking and simultaneously, beautiful. "We were like two moths around a candle, circling closer and closer to the flame, waiting to see whose wings would catch fire first." Yun Ling slipping into her painful memories and Aritomo with his mysterious past, created hardships their relationship. Yun ling comments, "He (Aritomo) was similar to the boulders on which we had worked. Only a small portion was revealed to the world, the rest was buried deep within, hidden from view."

Eng abruptly switches from the time period of the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) back to the Japanese occupation. This technique was disconcerting at first, but the more I thought about it the more I came to realize that memories are sudden interruptions; they don't wait. A word, a view, a comment will activate them. For Yun Ling, her medical condition would make this even more likely.

Historical fiction is my favored genre. Add to the history, a setting and time period I knew little about, add exquisite writing and voila! A book that is just perfect. I don't often reread a book, but this book would definitely be worth a second reading. I am sure those puzzle pieces would fit in more frequently and new pieces would be revealed to ponder over.

"Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point of time, illuminating it tor a moment before the wind seals up the gap, and the world is in shadow again."
Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,359 reviews793 followers
December 17, 2015
Are all of us the same, I wonder, navigating our lives by interpreting the silences between words spoken, analyzing the returning echoes of our memory in order to chart the terrain, in order to make sense of the world around us?
"...the heart of a contemplative state", in Tan's words, would have worked as a subsidiary title. Forbearing all contemptuous accusations of New Age influence, of course, for everyone knows that acceptable enlightenment may only be found in the dry and musty cacophonies of the classics, Europe as the official and Asia as the guilty pleasure. Certainly not in the pages of Malaysia breeding brought only to light within the last five years, growing to life a branch of World War Two and indeed a span of the globe entire rarely touched upon in modern literature with such respect, such dignity, a measured tread of facts and culture with a strength and a beauty to it that is so often shoddily spat out with glib pathos and cloying sentiment. But not here.

I can't think of the last time when a male author embodied a female voice so well. There may never have been a past example, for this narrator is not only female but one who has suffered from the world, a clinical victim all too easily consigned to passive madness and masculine rescue. This work would have still appealed to me had this been the case, piqued as I am by countries across the Pacific in both their history and their aesthetic glory, but it would have been a cold appreciation, reserved for that which does something new with the same old faulty mechanisms. Such a pleasure, then, to find literature that gives me faith in the "modern", a time when I shall not have to compartmentalize my expectations between the genders, retreating to female authors for a guarantee of peace from the endless compromise. As a woman, this evidence that the other side is not only listening, but making an effort, means the world.

In terms of the story that this much admired Teoh Yun Ling is moving through, I love it for its mindfulness of what it can give the reader, set as it is in a ream of countries and cultures foreign to the English powerhouses of the last word on literature. Yes, World War Two is a common subject, but not like this, not in Malaya with Boer Wars as a past and independence from the British Empire as a future where events and enmities fly fast in the face of those surviving. I myself value works of fiction by those who have a stake in the story's heritage far more than any outsider nonfiction, and so I was pleased by Tan's interweaving of the reality of his setting with the contours of his tale. The feeling left behind is akin to the filling of an empty space on a mental grasp of the world entire, one sweetened by other cultural aspects Tan chose to expound upon.

Aesthetic. You have your paintings, your literature, your sculptures and your buildings, but here is one of the few instances where gardening and tattoos serve as methods of enlightenment, shakkei and horimono just two examples of the lynch pin nomenclature wherein humans founded their worth upon a movement. Tan suffuses his work with contemplation of these two arts almost to the point that character and narrative and the rest of normative evaluations of books fall by the wayside, but not quite. From the beginning, we readers are searching alongside Teoh Yun Ling for her reconciliation, following her trails from judiciary to highlands and back again, justice proving as complex and vague an entirety as the Garden of Evening Mists; exacting a lifetime for a personal peace.
Through the windows I watch the mists thicken, wiping away the mountains borrowed by the garden. Are the mists, too, an element of shakkei incorporated by Aritomo? I wonder. To use not only the mountains, but the wind, the clouds, the ever-changing light? Did he borrow from heaven itself?
Profile Image for ·Karen·.
617 reviews767 followers
May 30, 2013
There we were, just last week, Jan-Maat and I, exchanging fairly facetious comments on a review of mine which managed, in a many-a-truth-spoken-in-jest kind of way to sum up precisely and concisely what troubles a writer most: endings.
And beginnings.
And middles.
And here I am, this week, with the perfect example of just how pertinent those flippant remarks might be. Tan Twan Eng made a superb beginning. He made a superb ending. Things just got ever so slightly lumpy in the middle.

On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan.
Irresistible beginning. And the Japanese garden that is the central image imposes its structure on the whole novel: layers of meaning that change at each corner, vistas that are made more significant by their being hidden until the right moment, Borrowed Scenery from the past, from other characters, from the terrain, from the setting, the sheer hard work that goes into its creation, the artifice, the composition. But also the deception. As Aritomo, the gardener of the Emperor of Japan says: "Every aspect of gardening is a form of deception." Tan builds his layers and layers of characters and time frames, he is masterful and controlled in his choice of language and it isn't until well into the second half of the book that a faint feeling of boredom sets in. A suspicion arises that the whole thing will be a meditation on the healing power of work and art. In fact, the ending is far more complex and subtly satisfying than my simplistic idea, and nearly (but not quite) compensates for the stretch in the middle where I wondered about the significance of the swiftlet nests and why the Communist Terrorists would have spared Yun Ling's life when they are so ruthless in their massacring of everyone else (apart from the obvious reason that the death of the narrator would have caused the odd problem), and remembered how clunky some of the exposition of Malayan history was.

And in the end I decided that my interest faded just a little because of the off-putting dryness of the narrative voice. That's another dilemma for the writer, not just beginnings and middles and endings, but how to tell them. Yun Ling's pain is overwhelming, unmanageable, unbearable. Her only survival is to disassociate herself from it. Thus the cool flatness of her tone is authentic, but makes for a strangely bland effect. So that my reaction to this resembles my reaction to the formality of Japanese gardens. I admire the artifice. But it doesn't appeal to me.
Profile Image for Margitte.
1,177 reviews539 followers
January 10, 2014
The book can be interpreted in many ways, it is that multi-levelled, so my take on the events might differ vastly from other readers. There are enough, excellent reviews about this book on Goodreads, so I won't indulge too much.

The most important sentence in the book, for me, is on Page 223(soft cover): "There was no need to talk much now - we understood each other's shades of silence."

And how precisely this sentence describes the events in the lives of all, but most importantly, the two main characters: The Japanese Aritomo, the masterful gardener with his secret, very special, horimono art, and the Chinese judge Teoh Yun Ling who is the narrator. She is writing her memoirs before Aphasia shuts her down inside her own body.

Not to disclose too much of the story, I can only say that Yun Ling was looking for something that Aritomo was the only one to help her with and she was totally unaware of it. He refused to design the garden in her sister's memory, but instead appointed her as his assistant in his own garden at Yugiri. There were secrets in the design of the garden that she needed to learn in order to finally get closure in her own life....!

The book starts off with the clue:
"On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan. Not many people would have known of him before the war, but I did......

....He did not apologise for what his countrymen had done to my sister and me. Not on that rain-scratched morning when we first met, nor at any other time. What words could have healed my pain, returned my sister to me? None.
And he understood that. Not many people did."

Yun Ling was determined to have the war criminals prosecuted and hanged. After escaping the terrible Japanese slave labor camp, where her sister died, she became a judge, a dangerous one for many people. But she also had to make peace with the reason why she was the only survivor in their camp. It was not only her love for her sister that drove her to design a garden in her memory...

The Garden of Evening Mist became the center of anger, hurt, forgiveness, insight, and peace. But in an incredible masterful twist by the author, it also became much much more than that!

The writing style, or plot in the book, reminds me a lot about
Mark Twain
's approach to his memoirs. He ignored the autobiographical structure (as did Tan Twan Eng in Garden of Evening Mist with the life story of Yun Ling in her own words ) Instead he(Twain) was of the opinion to "start it at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale,and move on to the next subject."

It is a very common style lately for many authors and can cause confusion, annoyance, and even instigate emotions similar to road rage for high-stressed, over-worked, burnt-out readers who expect the same level of drama and fast living in the books they read. Rage and speed is after all their only comfort zone, even in reading.

But this book blew my mind completely. At first I was conned by the elegant, lyrical prose; the almost boring peacefulness, the innocent garden talk -and much of it, the lessons in history, art, war and then the final conclusion that had me speechless, dumbfounded!

This garden of Evening Mist, captured not only higher levels of beauty, but also many different shades of silences which told the real story without words...

It is a tale about the real meaning of real forgiveness.

In my humble opinion the book should have ended with this sentence: "There was no need to talk much now - we understood each other's shades of silence."

It is a brilliant book! I first wanted to give it 3 stars, but after thinking about it, I changed my mind. I'm going to read it again as well. The second time around I will not miss the clues again!

Yes, Aritomo was a master gardener indeed! Now go read the book and see why! :-)
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,272 reviews49 followers
May 13, 2021
I have a long term goal of reading as many of the books that were longlisted or shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and this book was one of the more rewarding ones - the kind of book that has largely been frozen out of the prize since the publishers were allowed to submit American bestsellers.

The narrator Teoh Yun Lung is a Malay of Chinese descent, from a prosperous family. At the start of the book she has just taken early retirement from her job as a judge, and is revisiting the Cameron Highlands and the garden of the title. The garden was created by a master gardener who used to work for the Japanese emperor, and the book is Yun Ling's account of her own complex relationship with the garden, which she has inherited, and the Japanese more generally - she was the only survivor of a Japanese labour camp in which her elder sister died.

The politics and morality of the book are both complex, reflecting the ethnic make-up of Malaysia itself and also the roles of their Japanese and British colonial overlords. Another major character is Marcus, a proud Boer who runs the tea plantation where the garden was built, and this brings another element to the political side, as he is more anti-British than the Chinese Malayans. Some of the human stories are moving, and the research required must have been substantial.
Profile Image for PorshaJo.
467 reviews672 followers
January 8, 2021
Rating 4.5

Wow! What a way to start off the year with such an amazing read. I loved it. What drew me in.....the title. It's just so enchanting. We all tend to pick books for various reasons and I'm a big cover/title person before reading the description. So, it was immediately added to my TBR list. And it sat there. Struggling to find something I could focus on and read, I saw the audio version of this recently and jumped right in.

Teoh Yun Ling has recently retired from her position as a judge, as she is ill. She returns to Malaya where she lived for some time in her past. She returns here to remember her past but she also has other motives (which I shall not reveal here). Yun Ling was once captured and imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp along with her older sister. She survived, her sister did not. Her sister loved Japanese gardens and they frequently talked in-depth about them. Yun Ling decides to honor her sister by creating a Japanese garden for her, requesting that Nakamura Aritomo, the Japanese Emperor's gardener who now lives in Malaya, create it. The garden that Aritomo is currently creating is called Evening Mists. Artimomo refuses the create the garden for her, but he agrees to take her on as an apprentice so she can learn to create gardens to create one for her sister. Slowly the story of Yun Ling and her past, and Artiomo's past are revealed. I don't want to say much to spoil this story.

I really liked this one and can't stop thinking about it. The audio narration was quite good also. It allowed me to dive into the story, hear a bit about history, listen to details about Japanese gardens, the culture, and various places in Japan and Malaysia. I visited both Japan and Malaysia and brought back many memories to me. I found that fascinating considering the story focused on memories. It is a slow moving story that very slowly unravels and it's a bit complicated. Some might not enjoy this. It was character driven, somewhat violent at times. Again, not for everyone. I had to knock it just a bit due to a few times it was even a bit slow for me. There were a few voices the narrator did that I found very odd. Again, I'm being very nit-picky. This book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize and I can see why. It's truly a beautiful book and I'm super stocked to kick off my reading year with it.
Profile Image for Lisa (NY).
1,550 reviews602 followers
March 4, 2022
[4+] Yun Ling is on a quest to build a memorial garden for her sister who died in the Japanese war camp where they were both imprisoned. I was fascinated by her. She comes to grips with her past as she develops a relationship with Aritmota, once the gardener of the Emperor of Japan. This is a layered novel about memory and forgetting where submerged truths are slowly revealed. Although it has an intricate structure, it moved at a steady pace and I was riveted throughout.
Profile Image for Jill.
1,189 reviews1,688 followers
October 8, 2012
For those of us who read for character – and I am one of them – the complexities of a strongly drawn narrator is typically what reigns.

How odd, then, that I was so captivated by Garden of the Evening Mist, which is in many ways about the impermanence of individuals – the subjugation of self to become in closer alignment with nature and the flow of life – and the dominance of memory.

Our narrator is retired Supreme Court Judge Teoh Yun Ling, the physically maimed sole survivor of a brutal wartime camp where she served, euphemistically, as a “guest of the emperor” during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia. When we meet her, she has developed a particular type of aphasia that will soon affect her ability to communicate. “Once I lose all ability to communicate with the world outside myself, nothing will be left but what I remember. My memories will be like a sandbar, cut off from the shore by the incoming tide. For what is a person without memories? A ghost, trapped between worlds, without an identity, with no future, no past.”

It is that past, that future, and that identity that she is working to reclaim before the curtain lowers. And so we travel back with her to her past.

We learn that in the camp, she and her sister were able to withstand the mind-numbing horrors by remembering an exquisite Japanese garden in Kyoto. After the war, in tribute to her sister, Yun Ling seeks out Yugiri (the Garden of Forgetfulness), created by Nakamura Aritomo, the exiled gardener of the Emperor of Japan. He denies her request to design a tribute garden for her but does agree to take her on as an apprentice. The kinship is almost immediate: “It was odd how Aritomo’s life seemed to glance off mine; we were like two leaves falling from a tree, touching each other now and again as they spiraled on the forest floor.”

The slowly evolving plot is as contemplative as the garden itself. The discovery of how Yun Ling was able to survive and what she is hiding is for readers to discover for themselves, and that truth is hidden between the words that are spoken and the words that are kept inside of us. Or, as Yun Lang reflects, “Are all of us the same…navigating our lives by interpreting the silences between words spoken, analyzing the returning echoes of our memory in order to chart the terrain, in order to make sense of the world around us?”

In exquisitely crafted prose, TanTwan Eng renders the garden as a place of memory and forgetfulness and ultimately, of self-healing. It is a metaphor for life itself: “The garden has to reach inside you. It should change your heart sadden it, uplift it. It has to make you appreciate the impermanence of everything in life. That point in time just as the last leaf is about to drop, as the remaining petal is about to fall; that moment captures everything beautiful and sorrowful about life.”

This book – like the garden that is its subject – succeeds at capturing those elusive and impermanent truths.
Profile Image for Algernon (Darth Anyan).
1,529 reviews979 followers
April 10, 2015

The garden has to reach inside you. It should change your heart, sadden it, uplift. It has to make you appreciate the impermanence of everything in life. That point in time just as the last leaf is about to drop, as the remaining petal is about to fall; that moment captures everything beautiful and sorrowful about life. Mono no aware, the Japanese call it.

In many ways, the second novel by Tan Twan Eng that I read is an illustration of the ‘mono no aware’ concept, by turns depressing in its description of man’s inhumanity to man, and hopeful, in the transient yet enduring beauty created by art. The author has built here his own garden of ink, with twisted paths, secret coves to be revealed only by a certain angle of light, unexpected vistas just around the corner, poetic visitors alighting like a solitary crane on the carefully raked pebbles, to break the abstract patterns with its living footprints.

Like in his debut novel, the author has chosen an aged narrator to tell in a series of flashbacks the history of Malaya in the aftermath of the Second World War. Yun Ling Teoh is forced to retire from her position as judge on the Supreme Court of her country by a debilitating and irreversible brain illness. She chooses to go back to Yugiri, a place she hasn’t visited in more than thirty years, a Japanese style garden in the mountains above Kuala Lumpur. Here she has to choose between memory and forgetting. Memories of the lessons in formal gardening she received from Aritomo, the mysterious former gardener of the Emperor of Japan, memories of the love and friendship she got from the family of South African immigrants managing the nearby Majuba Tea Estate. She wants to forget her ordeal in a Japanese concentration camp that killed her older sister, she wants to put behind the gruesome memories of the Communist guerilla fight in the mountain jungles around the garden.

The entrance to the Majuba Tea Estate is guarded by twin statues of Greek Godesses: One is of Mnemosyne, the other is of her twin sister, the goddess of Forgetting, so good at her job that no one even remembers her name. Even the features of her stone portrait are blurred, indistinct. Yet Judge Teoh is still fighting to keep her memories, to keep the sister alive as long as her illness allows. So, she starts to write down her recollections of first laying her eyes on Yugiri, perched between the mists of the jungle and the clouds high above, of her difficulties in learning from one of the hated race who invaded Malaya, of her growing awareness of the deep spiritual significance of gardening.

A garden borrows from the earth, the sky, and everything around it, but you borrow from time. Your memories are a form of shakkei too. You bring them in to make your life here feel less empty. Like the mountains and the clouds over your garden, you can see them, but they will always be out of reach.

Aritomo is a reluctant sensei, reluctant to explain his art, preferring to drip feed Yun Ling bit by bit with what she needs to know in order to create her own personal garden. His speciality is ‘shakkei’, or Borrowed Scenery, the art of anchoring his carefuly controlled, tamed nature to the surrounding environment. On the spiritual plane, it can be considered as a reiteration of the ‘no man is an island’ thesis. In order to find her balance and her strength, Teoh needs to rely on her friends and even on her enemy, borrowing wisdom and sympathy to put her sad experiences into a better perspective.

There were four ways of doing it, he explained: Enshaku – distant borrowing – took in the mountains and the hills; Rinshaku used the features from a neighbour’s property; Fushaku took from the terrain; and Gyoshaku brought in the clouds, the wind and the rain.

The lessons of Aritomo extend beyond the art on how to arrange stones, plant trees or trim grass into yin-yang symbols. Teoh (and the reader) is treated to additional instruction into the mystic art of archery, or ‘kyudo’, into ‘ukiyo-e’ - the woodprinting techniques made famous by Hokusai, and into the secretive mastery of full body tattoos, or ‘horimono’. Occasionaly, these lessons steer too close to info dumps, but Tan Twan Eng is a born storyteller, a poet who weaves his metaphors deftly into the plot and who knows how to make the reader care deeply about his wounded heroine. I actually enjoyed the most of the book the strong link between the outside landscape and the inner peace that is so cherished in the Oriental cultures.

The practice of designing gardens had originated in the temples of China, where the work was done by monks. Gardens were created to approximate the idea of paradise in the afterlife. [...] The growth of Zen Buddhism steered the move towards a stricter asceticism, the excesses of the previous eras raked away as monks reflected on their faith by creating less cluttered gardens, paring down their designs almost to the point of emptiness.

An easy parallel, and an intimation into how the different Japanese forms of art, even the martial ones, are based on the same Zen principles, can be found in the next quote about ukiyo-e:

Look at our paintings – they have large tracts of emptiness, their composition is assymetrical ... they have a sense of uncertainty, of tension and possibility. That is what I want here.

A sense of uncertainty, a sustained tension, is harder to achieve by the author, and is one of the reasons I hesitated to give the novel a full endorsement. The second half of the novel tended to be a drag and not even the exquisite prose could make me read more than a chapter in one sitting. One of the major secondary plots, involving buried treasure in the jungle by the retreating Japanese Army, sort of fizzled out for me. Another development, the budding romance between Yun Ling and Aritomo, felt out of character for the concentration camp survivor. In fact, like with the protagonist of “The Gift of Rain”, there is a definite pro-British and pro-Japanese slant to the text, and an excessive virulence targetting the left-wing guerillas. Even a kamikaze pilot receives more sympathy than the hundreds of thousands of Chinese ethnics who were forcibly relocated by the Malay Government to death camps because of the Communist guerilla.

By the last page though, I was really glad I had kept reading, and I look forward with great interest to the next novel from this talented author. For an attempt at one-line review, I have this last description of the beautiful and sorrowful charm of Yugiri:

... a place that existed only in the overlapping of air and water, light and time.

I hope I will be able to visit one of these gardens, in Kyoto or in Malaya.
Profile Image for Friederike Knabe.
400 reviews156 followers
September 13, 2012
Yugiri, meaning "Evening Mist" and a famous (in the novel) Japanese Garden, is much more than a backdrop or setting for this totally mesmerizing and haunting novel. With its creator and his former apprentice, it is at the core of events and place. Like all Japanese Gardens Yugiri offers calm and serenity for reflection and beauty for the eye by capturing nature through "shakkei", borrowed scenery, within a given space. Nakamura Aritomo, the Emperor's gardener after leaving his Japanese homeland in 1940, has been creating a formal Japanese garden "that is only his" in the central highlands of the Malayan Peninsula. It is a region well known for its extensive tea plantations, seen on the cover of the book, that reach into to mountainous rainforest beyond. The extraordinarily beautiful landscape has something mysterious, spiritual and otherworldly about it. Aritomo, placing himself clearly into the ancient tradition of formal Japanese garden design principles, appears to live himself in a different world, working, meditating, walking, secluded in his garden...

Retired Supreme Court Judge in Kuala Lumpur, Yun Ling Teoh, of Chinese-Malay background, returns to Yugiri, the garden "above the clouds", thirty four years after she had seen it for the last time. The "stillness of the mountain awakens" her again; the "depth of the silence" that Yugiri represents wraps around her like a protective delicate silk shawl. Why does she return? Tan Twan Eng gives Yun Ling the voice to tell the story of her life, often in flashbacks, from the time she arrived for the first time at Cameron Highlands, the nearby tea plantation, owned by family friends, and where she hoped to meet Aritomo, until now that she feels age and illness making her return visit an urgent need. It a quest to rekindle and revive memories of the past, and, hopefully, to find answers to questions that have been with her for decades.

Above all, Yun Ling carries the loving memory of her sister, an avid student of Japanese Gardens, who did not survive the terrible conditions in a labour camp where both had been imprisoned during the Japanese occupation of Malaya (1942-45). Yun Ling had promised to build a garden for her sister if she escapes. After the war she, the sole survivor, tried to locate the notorious camp, but nobody seemed to know anything about it. Her ordeal and search for the truth also motivated her to become a prosecutor of Japanese war criminals. Emotions were buried deep inside her. "Emptiness: it appealed to me, the possibility of ridding myself of everything I had seen and heard and lived through". Meeting Aritomo, hostility and suspicion between the war victim and the Japanese gardener are difficult barriers to overcome. Yet, the mostly silent Mr. Nakamura is the best gardener there is for Yun Ling's project. Not surprisingly, he refuses to comply with her request to design her sister's garden. Instead, he offers her to become his apprentice for some months to learn all about designing it herself.

Tan Twan Eng's exquisitely conceived and written novel is captivating on different levels. On the one hand, he entrances your imagination with his detailed descriptions of Yugiri, its luscious colours, its ambiance and architectural features. We learn much about Japanese traditional gardens and its varied purposes. The author's gentle and delicate exploration of the slowly intensifying relationship between Aritomo and Yun Ling also enables Yun Ling's eventually telling her story about life under Japanese occupation. Her account of post-war civil strife before independence of Malaysia in 1963 and those involving others living near or passing through Yugiri are important and valuable additions. Nothing is clear-cut, ambiguities surround all central characters; some have even crossed paths before... and might again. How many questions will be answered or mysteries solved is less the concern than what is learned in human terms, in terms of memory, forgetting and, above all, understanding and forgiving.
Profile Image for Dilushani Jayalath.
995 reviews162 followers
June 10, 2023
There are certain books that possess the ability to captivate one's soul, leaving the reader yearning for more. These books, however, are a rarity, as they neither evoke happiness nor sadness; they simply exist. The book in question belongs to this exceptional category. Right from the outset, I discerned its somber undertones, which consistently reminded us of the impending sorrow. The first chapter alone enthralled me, not due to an exceptionally lyrical prose, but rather its ability to soothe the depths of the soul. Tan Twan Eng may not be celebrated for his mesmerizing writing style, but rather for his talent in capturing the hearts of readers in the most heart-wrenching manner without actually breaking them. He has the unique ability to evoke sadness without eliciting tears, and to inspire happiness without inducing a smile. In summary, he enables the reader to truly live through the book.

One of the primary reasons why I found this book so enthralling was its striking resonance with my personal experiences and the stories passed down to me by my grandparents and parents. It serves as a poignant reminder of the turbulent histories endured by colonized nations. I can somewhat see myself reflected in the character of Yun Ling, not in her virtues, but rather in her flaws. Like her, I find myself ensnared in an unending cycle of hatred towards a past that can never be rectified. Although my own past may not be as grim as hers, I still find myself trapped within the karmic wheel of animosity. I fervently wish that it wouldn't take me four decades to let go of this burden.

Furthermore, this book evoked memories of my post-war essays during my academic pursuits. It reignited a wound that I refuse to let heal, continuously scratching at the itch and allowing myself to bleed. I fear that I will never permit this wound to scab over.

And then, there was the ending. I anticipated it to be sorrowful, expecting the loss of a beloved character. Yet, the conclusion possessed a melancholic quality above all else. The last words uttered by Frederick left me motionless, staring into space for a solid five minutes, contemplating their meaning. Ultimately, the story comes full circle as Yun Ling embarks on a path similar to that of Aritomo, and the reader is reminded of the two statues in the garden that she observed. My advice to you, my fellow reader, upon completing the book, is to return to the beginning and revisit the quote by Richard Holmes, as it will hold much greater significance.
Profile Image for Agnieszka.
258 reviews932 followers
February 24, 2018

Garden of evening mists it is history of South-East Asia in a nutshell. It’s a reminder of uncomfortable truths and shameful crimes. Hell of colonialism, the cruelty of the Japanese army massacring Malaysian, Chinese, English, the back-breaking labour camps for war prisoners or as they were called the guests of the emperor . What a cruel euphemism. This is callousness of British authorities and leaving the Malays to their fate. It is the Communist partisans and stories about the legendary treasure hidden somewhere in the jungle.

And somewhere in there our characters. Yun Ling, tormented with guilt for surviving the war and trying to create a Japanese garden for her sister. Aritomo, an enigmatic master of gardening, but also art of wood engraving and tattooing. Pupil and her sensei. It's their relationship that drives the novel. But also Magnus Pretorius, a participant of the Boer war, tea planter in the mountains of Cameron. And over his residence, named in the honour of the battle lost by English, Majuba House, proudly flies the flag of the Transvaal.

At the same time it is a beautiful and sensual tale, full of delightful descriptions of mountains, hills and plantations bathed in clouds and rain, shrouded in mists. Exotic plants and flowers of strelitzia like Japanese origami. And the garden itself. Precisely planned and consistently created. Garden which borrows from the earth, sky and clouds, which harmonizes with the surrounding world, where everything has its place, a stone, a lake, scattered leaves on the lawn.
Memory garden, where past meets with future. But also an imaginary garden in which Yun Ling had protected herself being a prisoner in a Japanese camp.

But most of all it is a story about remembering.
Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals up the gap, and the world is in shadows again.

Memory and oblivion. Like twin sisters. Mnemosyne, goddess of memory and her nameless reflection, the goddess of forgetfulness. Their statues were standing at Majuba House.

Memory and oblivion, good and evil, light and shade. And somewhere in between, this small space, tiny crack in which we try to live, struggling with the demons of the past.

The narrative is unhurried and non-chronological, mixes time plans The poetics is based on the understatements and ambiguity. Some questions remain with no answer, as a blank fragment on the skin in the traditional Japanese tattoo.

So, sit back with a cup of green tea in your hand and listen:
On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the emperor of Japan…
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,491 reviews2,720 followers
February 26, 2019
I came to this book ready to love it as so many of my book-friends do... but sadly I found it patchy and episodic. As is so often the case in contemporary novels, it flits between different times: c.1990s (I'm guessing) when the narrator Yun Lin retires from her position as a judge in Malaysia and returns to Majuba where the eponymous garden lies; 1951 when she first becomes the apprentice to a Japanese master-gardener and works with him on Yugiri; and inset stories of her experiences under Japanese occupation during the war.

There are also other inset stories such as that of a Japanese professor in the present who was a kamikaze pilot during the war; and the tales of an Afrikaaner family now living in Malaysia who hated the English for their activities during the Boer War. It's hard to see how this all comes together and the lack of organic unity is one of the things that disappointed me.

Yun Lin is a hard character to get a handle on: on one hand, she's still known to be bitter about the war, and to hate the Japanese; yet, on the other, she had a Japanese lover in the 1950s. I'd expected the latter story to be more subtle and to interrogate the conflicts between a nation's wartime personality and an individual - but actually this never gets addressed. Yugiri, for sure, is an image of serenity, harmony and beauty in contrast to the atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese army of occupation - but even the garden may have a more sinister purpose...

Add to this the boys-own-adventure strand of a missing war-time treasure, and some rather convenient occurences (the kamikaze pilot who's due to fly to his death... but is prevented by the dropping of the atom bomb) and I frequently felt out of kilter with this book. Even the prose style which others have found beautiful felt rather mundane to me: lots of mentions of clouds, mists, herons and stars but no real substance.

I was especially disappointed with the clichéd figure of Aritomo: an almost cartoonish amalgamation of 'orientalising' characteristics: he's enigmatic, inscrutable, speaks in Taoist riddles, takes Yun Lin as his disciple, and spends his time creating beauty in his garden, woodblocks and body tattoos - in typical fashion, he disappears mysteriously and leaves just his creations behind. Reparation at the end... or something slightly more sinister?

So overall I found this baggy and chaotic - there are powerful sections but they are jumbled up with all kinds of miscellaneous extras. With so much going on, I'd be hard-pressed to say what this is *about*: wasted lives as a result of war? Reparation and recompense through beauty and creation? A potted history of Malaya/Malaysia in the latter half of of the twentieth century? What I will add is that I found this surprisingly emotionally cold.

Profile Image for Jonathan Peto.
254 reviews47 followers
July 22, 2014
The main character of Ready Player One spends a lot of his time in an online world. After reading his story, I felt sensory deprived and longed for a narrative that offered lush images of nature. The Garden of Evening Mists delivered. It takes place in the highlands of Malaysia, mainly on a tea plantation called Majuba Tea Estate and its environs, not far from the jungle. The garden of the title belongs to a Japanese neighbor, Aritomo. I was indoors while reading both novels and words on the page, I suppose, should be as dry and lifeless as living in an online world, so really, it is funny that one author’s decision not to evoke the real world should succeed by making me feel claustrophobic and another author succeeds because his words evoked memories of real things like distant mountains and slopes planted with rows of tea bushes. There were so many wonderful descriptions and depictions to savor as Tan Twan Eng establishes his setting and story.

Besides the natural beauty of the place, the setting includes tension, change, and history. There is one narrator, but two story lines, one in a way, because they entwine, naturally. In the story of the present the narrator is Judge Teoh who retires a few years early from the Supreme Court in Kuala Lumpur and travels to the Cameron Highlands, which was her home for a time nearly 40 years earlier. The tension in the present story derives from her retirement, due to illness, and her trip to a place and people she mainly abandoned long ago. She returns to meet a Japanese historian who she may allow to study woodblock prints she inherited. The tension in a flashback story derives from the times: it is 1951 during the Emergency, when communist insurgents terrorize the population. Judge Teoh is a young woman, Yun Ling, recently fired from her job and visiting the Cameron Highlands because she is interested in hiring Aritomo, the Japanese gardener, to design a garden in memory of her sister, who died during World War 2 in a Japanese slave camp that Yun Ling survived. That may raise eyebrows, hiring a Japanese gardener for a sister killed by the Japanese, but her sister loved Japanese gardens and continued to despite what was happening to her.

Some may feel the pace “crawls” for much of the book, but despite occasionally distracting repetition, I loved the set up. It was a whole new world, related to mine (I live in Japan), but very different. Judge Teoh is a very angry narrator, even in the flashback because it is after her time in the slave camp. She is so angry I have to say she made me laugh quite a few times. I rarely want to give someone a hug so badly. The shifts in time allow us to experience many of the characters when they were young and old, a contrast I find deeply satisfying and engaging. The relationship between the present story and the past one, including the past past of World War 2, is complex but not convoluted. It builds up a historical tension that even reaches back through other characters to other times and places such as the Boer Wars and the Opium Wars and creates a deep sense of humanity, not as sad or rosy, but as melancholy and unfathomable. This, I felt, was a bigger theme of the book than the one the author seemed to tout: memory and forgetting.

There are questions that keep the reader reading, such as what happened to Yun Ling in the slave camp and how did she escape? Yun Ling, the narrator, knows the answers throughout, of course, so the question that keeps her going also eventually becomes known to the reader. It is a fascinating question that may ultimately make Aritomo, the Japanese gardener, the central character. As the book progresses I realized that it became a book about Japan, though it was set in Malaysia. I grew uncomfortable (I’m not complaining), not just by the scenes of Yun Ling in the camp, which were kept to a minimum, but by what happened in 1951 or 1952 too, though at that time she had the freedom to make her own choices. As an older woman looking back, trying to understand so many things, Yun Ling was unflinching and never boring.

The Garden of the Evening Mists contained a few elements which left me, not cold, but unsure. The Japanese are dreadful here, because they were dreadful then. They were not benevolent conquerers, but Tan Twan Eng is not interested in caricatures. He depicts a Japanese war criminal about to be hanged very well, his humanity intact. He is not too fair, but later, when we learn the historian’s story, I realized I suffered from kamikaze overload because it just did not work for me. On a small scale, some images and juxtapositions were too convenient for me, too pat, like when the heron flew into the garden and the meteors appeared overhead. Some images were too contrived, like when something recently described was used in an immediate simile (“hardening like the strands of the birds’ saliva”). For the most part though, The Garden of the Evening Mists resonates. It captures humanity, the good and the bad, in the sweep of history and as individuals, portraying us at our best and worst: war, violence, art, and love. I will scoop up his first book, The Gift of Rain, I am sure.
Profile Image for Tony.
919 reviews1,555 followers
April 4, 2013
The Japanese did not enter World War II through Pearl Harbor. Fifteen minutes after midnight and an hour before Pearl Harbor was attacked, Japanese troops landed on the northeast coast of Malaya. Malaya was the first door they smashed open. Japanese soldiers crawled up the beach at Pantai Chinta Berahi, taking the places of the leatherback sea turtles which emerged from the sea every year around that time to lay their smooth round eggs.

This is an exquisite novel of time and memory. (You know, if any GoodReaders are into those sorts of things).

We meet Teoh Yun Ling first as an older woman, a retiring Malayasian judge. She has felt and correctly self-diagnosed the first symptoms of Aphasia. She knows she will soon lose the thread, and there is much to remember. So she retires and returns to Yugiri, The Garden of Evening Mists. It is a Japanese Garden in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia created by Aritomo, once the Emperor’s gardener. This is no Garden of Eden. Indeed, the very notion of that Garden makes no sense to Aritomo:

'A garden where nothing dies or decays, where no one grows old, and the seasons never change. How miserable.’
‘What’s so miserable about that?’
‘Think of seasons as pieces of the finest, most translucent silk of different colours. Individually, they are beautiful, but lay one on top of another, even if just along their edges, and something special is created. That narrow strip of time, when the start of one season overlaps the end of another, is like that.’
…. He looked at me. ‘When the First Man and First Woman were banished from their home, Time was also set loose upon the world.’

But Time and Memory, for Teoh Yun Ling, are not all beautiful silks. The two missing fingers on her left hand remind her constantly of the time she and her sister suffered in a brutal Japanese camp during the war. Only Yun Ling returned.

I stop when I see the pair of statues, Mnemosyne and her nameless twin sister. The Goddess of Memory had remained unchanged but, to my dismay, her sister’s face is almost worn smooth, her features rubbed away. Perhaps it is caused by the difference in the quality of stone the sculptor used, but it unsettles me nonetheless.

The writing here is restrained and beautiful, the symbolism not overdone. Two ‘testimonies’ about experiences during World War II are gripping.

I learned about:

-- Japanese Gardens.
-- Horimono, large-scale body tattoos.
-- Ukiyo-e, woodblock prints (which diverted me for a day just looking at print after print online).
-- Malaysia: its geography, history and heterogeneity. I feel like I was Google-mapped directly down on this peninsula.
-- Tea: growing it, making it and the proper, respectful way to drink it.

There was some incongruity. Her distance from her father troubled me. Yun Ling understandably hated the Japanese, prosecuted them and was repulsed by them. Yet she loved one.

However, once when she had picked up and bagged every fallen leaf in Yugiri, she announced the garden as perfect. Aritomo reaches his hand into the bag and scatters a very few leaves. The horimono, the garden, the testimonies, the prints: they are all an interconnected map of Time.

I loved this.


Profile Image for DeB.
1,000 reviews252 followers
February 7, 2017
The Garden of the Evening Mists is a "literary novel", with a capital L. It requires concentration. It delivers prose which insists that you stop and read again, look at the words which take you into the stillness of the garden. It forces you to focus, because this narrative moves fluidly in time, between people and love and cruelty and memory. It tells a story of wartime in what is now Malaysia, its aftermath from the occupation of the harsh Japanese and a country devastated by a loss of trust in its Colonial British government, a land threatened by murderous guerrilla Communist terrorists and exhausted people. And so much more...

During a bit of a former reading vacuum, my inclination was to peruse the innumerable LISTS which categorize books by some notable feature or another. Somehow, I found myself among winners of The Man Asian Literary Prize, many short and longlisted for the Booker, a veritable deep well of literature from Asia and most of which I had been unaware. These were not the stuff of cozy mysteries or #1 bestsellers, well marketed to a huge audience. These had grit... Herein I discovered The Garden of Evening Mists, the book cover inviting me in.

The plot is complex. At times I found myself either in the past of 1951 or the present of the novel, confusingly unable to discern where in time Yun Ling Teoh was. At the novel's opening, Yun Ling has retired from her profession as Judge and has returned to Yugiro, in the Cameron Highlands. At sixty-three she continues to bear the scars of the Japanese wartime camp, haunted by her sister's death.

Yun Ling is also battling a rare neurological disease, which will claim her ability to understand writing. After a professor visits to view the Japanese woodcuts in Yun's possession, she is prompted to write about Aritomo, the Japanese gardener who also created the garden, who took her as an apprentice in 1951, whose lives had intersections on one another's path- and which she will only discover by reaching back into the stillness of her fading memory, a place she hoped to never revisit.

Her memories are moved to appear as she notices the jungle, the light of the sun, an archery bow... the sequence as haphazard as the triggers themselves. Gradually, a picture begins to emerge slowly, pieces of people, conversations fragmented becoming a whole, and Yun Lin sees Aritomo and herself differently.

"Before me lies a voyage of a million miles, and memory is the moonlight I will borrow to illuminate my way.
The lotus flowers are opening in the first rays of the sun. Tomorrow's rain lies on the horizon, but high up in the sky something pale and small is descending, growing in size as it falls. I watch the heron circle the pond, a leaf spiraling down to the water, setting off silent ripples across the garden."

A beautiful, deliberate and atmospheric novel. Highly recommended for readers wanting a mental stretch.
Profile Image for Alice Poon.
Author 5 books280 followers
May 23, 2016

As Oscar Wilde once said, there’s nothing sane about the worship of beauty. For me, the saying certainly rings true for this ethereally beautiful novel. My passion may be irrational and even skewed, given that I am an ethnic Chinese with a penchant for oriental art, including Japanese gardens, but that doesn’t make it any less of a passion.

In this poetic drama, two seemingly unrelated elements – brutal sufferings in war and the Japanese ancient art of gardening and tattooing – are masterfully juxtaposed and coalesced into a seamless narrative with themes of hatred, loss, redemption, friendship, love and war-born stigmas. Set in the misty and unfathomable depths of the Cameron Highlands during and after World War II, the novel explores the philosophical blending of polar extremes in life, like in the Taoist symbol of Yin and Yang, while galloping along twists and turns of the storyline. This blending is vividly present throughout the novel. Deep hatred is eventually turned into undying love; tranquil calmness exists alongside the terror of war cruelty; the mind oscillates between memory and oblivion; physical pain becomes an addictive pleasure; real garden scenery is designed to create an illusion for the viewer.

Having visited many temple and private gardens while on a visit to Kyoto in the mid-80s (I was lucky to have been invited to visit the Nomura Villa there, which was breath-taking), I’ve always been bewitched with how the Japanese garden design can evoke a soulful mood in viewers. Now that I’ve read this novel, I understand a little more about the concept behind the design.

The plotline glides along in velvety prose, often stoking picturesque imagination in the reader. This is a passage that I particularly like:-

“Think of the seasons as pieces of the finest, most translucent silk of different colors. Individually, they are beautiful, but lay one on top of another, even if just along their edges, and something special is created. That narrow strip of time when the start of one season overlaps the end of another is like that.”

In the back matter under “Author’s Commentary”, the author likens the art of Japanese gardening to that of creative writing. He thinks that both arts require artifice and lies, and that for a novel, or a garden, to succeed, the lie has to convince, to beguile. I must say that the novel has deluded and charmed me.

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