The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng was my very first five-star read for the 2018 year. It is an #OwnVoices Malay historical fiction novel that took my breath away, broke my heart, and astounded me with its impeccably beautiful prose. I am very excited to talk to you about it today!
The novel takes place in 1951 Malaya and is centred around events that occurred during and after World War II. It follows a young woman named Yun Ling Teoh, who, after surviving a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace in the tea plantations of Cameron Highlands. During her stay, she discovers a beautiful Japanese garden nearby called Yugiri that was created and kept by a curious individual named Aritomo, the former royal gardener for Japan’s Emperor. Despite her hatred for the Japanese, Yun Ling tries to convince Aritomo to create a memorial garden for her sister, who died in the same camp Yun Ling was imprisoned at. After declining her request, Aritomo instead decides to take her on as his apprentice. An unlikely bond between them begins to grow.
After consuming the first ten to twenty to pages of the book, I realised that I was utterly drawn into it and I had barely dipped my toes into the story. After a moment’s contemplation, it dawned on me that the prose had swept me away. It is lyrical, beautifully descriptive, and poignantly evocative. The writing does a phenomenal job of enrapturing the reader by revealing the story in morsels of pre-war and post-war culture, and conventions, lingering between nostalgia and traumatic recollections. When I finished the book, I came to recognise that it also complemented the eloquently refined storytelling in a subtle, but powerful way. It has been years since I have read a novel that was written in such a fashion, to be so unexpectedly hypnotic.
“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 toward the morning light of remembrance.”
The story itself is part historical novel, part romance, and part critique on the social injustices of wartime and how it affects the identity of an entire country and culture, usually in a negative means. There is the emotional examination of the psychological consequences victims faced from prolonged captivity in concentration camps and prisons. Most of these are illustrated in terms of mental health illnesses we can identity today as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, paranoia, and much more. The subject matter is approached with genuine honesty and matter-of-factly, without coming off as condescending. Even when we see it explored via the characters’ first-hand experiences, there is an underlying tenderness and harsh reality to what she faced, but it is never written in an accusatory or malignant means.
In addition, the novel shows us the gradual complexities of romance that is built upon mutual trauma and the subconscious way we, as humans, tend to depend on others in helping us to salve our old wounds and problems. This creates a very interesting dynamic between Aritomo and Yun Ling due to her displeasure towards his entire race of people, and his own inner conflicts due to his past associations. Not only does she unknowingly seek comfort in him, and him in her, but she also seeks answers to many questions that she feels entitled to due to her pain. The romance itself is a wonderful survey of how pain and grief can enable us, and illustrates the lengths that we will go to to validate those emotions.
“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 to the forest floor.”
Lastly, my favourite part of the story, and quite possibly the most difficult to stomach, is how The Garden of Evening Mists demonstrates the fact that an entire country was forced to assimilate into an unfamiliar culture during a severe time of war. To not do so would result in unimaginable torture, or death. It takes it one step further and shows the reader how these actions continued to affect the inhabitants of said country decades later, i.e.: Malaya becoming Malaysia. I counted eleven times during my entire reading of the book where I had to put it aside and truly contemplate the very nature that warfare has on the world, and how so much of our history is shaped by it, more often for the worse. Admittedly, I also found it horrific that the same things that happened to the people of Malaya happened to the Japanese in America with the Japanese Internment Camps. A part of me even ponders if the idea to participate in such an inhumane way was inspired because of what happened to them.
If you need more substance aside from the consequences of conflict, and romance between unlikely people to hook your interest in the book, then I have a few additional, unique qualities to mention. The novel utilises some fascinating information surrounding, not only Japanese gardens, but also the art of Japanese tattoos. Both subjects are discussed with conjunction to culture, specifically its impact on Japanese culture and etiquette. It shows us how these two art forms are harmoniously and philosophically similar regarding Japanese discipline and their state of mind, appropriate for the era, and added new levels of dimension to the narrative as a whole. Both subjects are excellently researched and does not in any way appropriate Japanese culture, or the conferred topics. I found it very respectful and written with great care.
Even with the abundance of good qualities that this title has to offer, there is one slight thing that may be off-putting, specifically to any Japanese readers out there. Since the book takes place during and after World War II and is told from the perspective of people who were affected by the Japanese military, the term “Japs” is used a lot by the people of Malay. I believe the author wrote this into the pages of the novel, not to be offensive or harmful, but to bring validity to the story as well as to show the reader the level of fear and other negative associations that were brought on because of the war and what happened, i.e.: everything they were put through. As such, it is challenging at times to read because you can feel the rage and loathing from the characters that use the term. It makes you extremely uncomfortable. But that is the point given the nature of the plot.
Overall, The Garden of Evening Mists was an outstanding book. It brings to light the terrible brutality that many minor nations in the Second World War faced, which is rarely ever discussed, is a brilliant critique on the mental and emotional trauma that stems from forced assimilation under the threat of inconceivable violence, and the intricacies of human interaction, especially when it comes to loneliness, pain, and redemption. On top of everything, it is #OwnVoices, adding a level of authenticity and sincerity to it that would otherwise be lost if written by an author who was not. I cannot recommend The Garden of Evening Mists enough! Recommend for fans of historical fiction and Asian literature.
5 tea leaves outta 5!