All is not as it seems in Tan Twan Eng’s Garden of Evening Mists. Not for the characters, nor the reader.
The story glides between three stages in the life of Teoh Yun Ling, Chinese born and Cambridge educated, recently-retired after long service as a judge in post-Independent Malaysia.
She has returned to the lush tea-growing area of the Highlands of her youth to record her memories before they are lost to aphasic dementia.
As a young woman it was here that she and her adored sister were captured by invading Japanese forces and subjected to devastating brutality as “guests of the Emperor” at a jungle camp.
She emerges the sole survivor, physically and mentally maimed, returns to the Highlands, seeking help from the reclusive Aritomo in creating a traditional Japanese garden as a memorial to her sister.
As the violent count-down to independence unfolds she finds she is irrevocably drawn to the enigmatic Aritomo, once gardener to the Emperor and now in mysterious exile.
It is only later, as she forces herself to piece together the shards of memory, that she begins to see the whole picture of the events that had taken place 40 years before.
Like the garden she and Aritomo-sensei created, this is a multi-layered story. Tan’s writing reflects the subtleties and nuances of the world in which Yun Lin moves at each stage of her life.
Subtly, he blends the lushness of the setting with the savageness of the conflicts and the simple aesthetic of Aritomo’s life. Trails in the dense rainforest jungle peter out like Yun Lin threads of understanding. Blank spaces are opportunities yet to be realised. Nothing is only what it seems.
Tan has achieved a masterful book, one that is both poetic and thrilling. The story will continue to haunt you long after the last page is turned.
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng published by Myrmidon, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.