Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Review: The Garden of Evening Mists

Summary: It's Malaya, 1949. After studying law at Cambridge and time spent helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals, Yun Ling Teoh, herself the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle fringed plantations of Northern Malaya where she grew up as a child. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in Kuala Lumpur, in memory of her sister who died in the camp. Aritomo refuses, but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice 'until the monsoon comes'. Then she can design a garden for herself.

As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to her sensei and his art while, outside the garden, the threat of murder and kidnapping from the guerrillas of the jungle hinterland increases with each passing day. But the Garden of Evening Mists is also a place of mystery.

Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? Why is it that Yun Ling's friend and host Magnus Praetorius, seems to almost immune from the depredations of the Communists? What is the legend of 'Yamashita's Gold' and does it have any basis in fact? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all? -- Weinstein Books

When my good friend selected THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS by Tan Twan Eng for our May book club selection, I was pretty excited. I hadn't read the novel (which is not always the case), and truthfully, I wasn't at all familiar with the story. After I read the book's description, it sounded like a book I'd really enjoy. Plus, it didn't hurt that the book was nominated for the 2012 Man Booker Prize.

THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS was a beautifully written book about a woman named Yun Ling Teoh, a survivor of a Japanese wartime camp. After a career prosecuting Japanese war criminals and serving as a judge, Yun Ling unexpectedly retires because she has been diagnosed with a disease that will take away her memory. She decides to return to a plantation in Northern Malaya where she spent time earlier in her life. She also begins writing down the events that have taken place in her life before she forgets all of them.

As Yun Ling thinks back on her life (a period that she hasn't wanted to remember for most of her adult life) and begins writing her personal story, the novel also reflects Yun Ling's past. The reader learns that Yun Ling came to this plantation many years ago with the desire to create a Japanese style garden in memory of her sister who died in a Japanese war camp. Because Yun Ling has suffered so much abuse at the hands of the Japanese, it's natural that she hates them; however, she meets Aritomo, a gardener who once worked for the Emperor of Japan, and asks him to create her sister's garden. He refuses but tells Yun Ling that he will teach her to design the garden herself while working as an apprentice to Aritomo.

The story follow Yun Ling as she learns about Japanese gardens but it also follows her unique relationship with Aritomo and her process of trying to heal. What is interesting is how many questions are raised as Yun Ling reveals her story like how Yun Ling managed to be the only survivor from her camp and what happened to Aritomo? The novel provides many, but not all, of the answers, and some readers will appreciate the open-endedness of the story, while others will want more closure to Yun Ling and Aritomo's story.

I am extremely curious to see what my friends think about THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS. I have a feeling that most (if not all) of us will say that we enjoyed the book, and I am confident that we will agree that the writing is outstanding. In fact, I truly can't rave enough about just how beautiful the prose is. The author's descriptions of the garden and the Malaya countryside are so vivid that I had no problems visualizing them; however, it was the way he presented Yun Ling and Aritomo's stories that made the book so outstanding. I loved how he incorporated such a sense of mystery into the characters and their actions.

THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS is a quiet story but it does pack a powerful punch. The author did a wonderful job of developing Yun Ling's character. I admit that initially her character didn't resonate with me; however, as her story was revealed, my heart broke for the pain she experienced as a child... and as an adult. It's so difficult for me to imagine that people live in a world of so much violence and fear, and I was reminded how lucky I am just to be born in the U.S.

I am having a difficult time articulating my next thought, but I'll give it a shot. I absolutely adored how the author tied the imagery of the garden (and then Yun Ling's tattoo) to the story. There is no way I can even begin to describe how well these "symbols" represented the world around the characters -- both the deceptions and the hidden truths. It's truly amazing how well Eng balanced the story and its symbolism!

I think THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS was an excellent choice for our book club to discuss. I wasn't able to find a formal set of questions, but we never really stick to a guide anyway. Some of the themes I hope to discuss include the effects of war, prejudice, grief, loss, truths, healing, love, forgiveness, art, and memory. I also think there are quite a few symbols, namely the garden itself, that will be interesting to dissect.

THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS is a gorgeous novel and one that fans of literary fiction won't want to miss.

I borrowed THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS from my local library.


Beth F said...

I bet your book club will find a lot to talk about. I'm not quite sure this is for me, but I'm looking forward to reading about your meeting.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Strange that it was nominated for a Booker but I've never heard of it! But it sounds excellent, and I'd love to hear how your book club felt about it.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Sounds really interesting! I am also reading a book about Malaysia and Japan but it is nonfiction.

bermudaonion said...

The story and the writing sound marvelous. I'm one who would probably want more closure but I have a feeling I'd still enjoy the book. Let us know what your book club thinks!