The second country I visited via books this year was Malaysia. Last year I had the opportunity to listen to all of the authors shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize read from their novels. When I heard Tan Twan Eng read from his novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, I knew I wanted to read it. A few days later I popped into the bookstore and purchased the book. And I was fortunate enough to snag an autographed copy.
Teoh Yun Ling didn’t have an easy life. During World War II she and her sister were sent to a Japanese camp. She was the only one who survived the camp. After the war she prosecuted Japanese war criminals. Yun Ling hated the Japanese. But she loved her sister who died in the camp. Yun Ling didn’t know where she was interned. And she didn’t know where her sister died or where who body was. Since she couldn’t bury her, she wanted to create a memorial garden for her sister, who loved Japanese Gardens. Yun Ling approaches Nakamura Aritomo, who is now living in Malaysia. He was the gardener for the Emperor of Japan and Yun Ling wants to commission him to design a garden for her sister. He refuses. However, he takes her on as an apprentice so Yun Ling can create a garden herself.
World War II has ended, however, there’s a new war being fought in the jungles of Malaysia. Communist guerrillas are roaming the countryside murdering those in their way. Malayan nationalists are struggling for independence from Britain. And through it all, Yun Ling and Aritomo work in the Garden of Evening Mists.
This novel is one of the most beautiful novels I have ever read. On many occasions I found myself rereading passages.
“Thirty-six years after that morning, I hear his voice again, hollow and resonant. Memories I had locked away have begun to break free, like shards of ice fracturing off an arctic shelf. In sleep, these broken floes drift towards the morning light of remembrance.”
Before reading this I didn’t know much about Malaysia and its turbulent history. The history alone broke my heart. But reading about Yun Ling and her trials and tribulations brought it to life for me. The amount of cruelty humans can inflict on other humans is disturbing. While this novel is beautiful, it is also gut-wrenching. War is brutal. No matter what language you use to describe it, it’s violent.
This novel is one that should be read in small chunks. Don’t devour it. Savor it. The Garden of Evening Mists is a work of art. If you have not read it, I encourage you to do so.