The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

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The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Teoh Yun Ling survives a Japanese WWII slave camp with one enveloping desire – to build a Japanese garden as a memorial for her late sister. She is apprenticed to the famous Japanese garden expert Nakamuro Aritomo but, against a background of Malayan Communists destroying all vestiges of normal life, Yun Ling has to come to terms with more than horticulture.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: February 2012
Publisher: Myrmidon Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1905802623

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Malay Chinese Teoh Yun Ling travels to the Cameron Highlands of Malaya to meet the legendary Japanese garden designer and expert, Nakamura Aritomo. As the sole survivor of a World War II Japanese slave labour camp, Yun Ling has many reasons to hate the Japanese but some things are stronger than hatred. For, whilst in the camp, she promised her sister a Japanese garden. When life became difficult during interment, the sisters discussed and visualised the finished result to keep them hanging on. Ling's sister perished but the dream of a memorial garden drives her on. Nothing is that straightforward, though. The designer refuses the commission. Instead he suggests that she stays, as his apprentice, learning the art in order to become her own designer. Yun Ling agrees and discovers more than horticultural finesse.

Tan Twan Eng wields a masterful pen. There's a mass of local colour oozing from this novel; the majesty of the Highlands and surrounding jungle seep through the plot as world history is brought alive and the fear of the locals is almost tangible as the Malayan Communists rampage. At a more 'micro' level, the detail in the garden is recounted in a way that ensures fascination rather than boredom. Little snippets draw the reader in, e.g. the reasoning behind the use of copper in a pond and the symbolism connected with Japanese standing stones.

It's not just the background that makes this book special. Each character has been forged with one common denominator: they've all lived through conflict and pain, albeit it in different places and viewpoints. Yun Ling's suffering is the hub of the book, but the others who gather in and around the garden are the spokes which support the structure. For instance, Magnus, the South African tea planter, is trying to come to terms with the way his fellow Boers were treated by the British at the turn of the 20th century. For Magnus' son Frederik it's the pain of unrequited love that cuts through his life. Even the art collector who calls to view Aritomo's paintings has a war-time past to share from an unexpected and unusual viewpoint. (I would love to write more about that, but I don't want to detract from its revelation.) Meanwhile the skirmishes rage as the Malayan Communists fight for a freedom that means the death of many innocent people, ideas and lifestyles. However, through all this, the garden remains as a focal point for calm and healing.

On a simple level, the novel envelops the reader as the story unfolds. However, it's not just a great story, it's also a gossamer web of metaphors and levels of understanding that encourage the reader to look deeper. The twists are brilliantly (and gently) introduced. They crept up on me but, in retrospect, the signs were there, creating the urge to start the book again as soon as I'd finished, knowing from the beginning what I'd learnt at the end.

Indeed, I learnt a lot from The Garden of Evening Mists but the one thing that will stay with me is that it's possible for a book to be as soul-drenchingly poignant as it is beautiful. Reading this isn't an experience you're going to forget for a long, long time.

I would like to thank Myrmidon Books for providing The Bookbag with a copy to review.

If you enjoyed this and would like to read more fiction about Japan, perhaps you'd like the short stories The Beautiful and the Grotesque by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. If you'd like your ficition a little lighter than that, how about The Scarlet Kimono by Christina Courtenay?

Buy The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng at Amazon.com.


Booklists.jpg The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng is in the Man Booker Prize 2012.

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