Fiction - paperback; Myrmidon Books; 448 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists has been shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize. It is a beautiful tale set in the central highlands of Malaya about memory, forgetting, war, politics, atonement, redemption, forgiveness, gardening — and the Japanese art of horimono tattoos.
A judge looks back on her life
The story revolves around Teoh Yun Ling, the sole survivor of a secret Japanese slave-labour camp, who takes early retirement from her career as a judge at the Supreme Court in Kuala Lumpur. For the first time in almost 35 years, she returns to Yugiri, in the Cameron Highlands, where the beautiful Japanese garden called "Evening Mists" is located.
Six tall, narrow stones huddled into a miniature limestone mountain range in the centre of the pond. On the opposite bank stood the pavilion, duplicated in the water so that it appeared like a paper lantern hanging in mid-air. A willow grew a few feet away from the pavilion's side, its branches sipping from the pond.
It was here, during the Malayan Emergency, that she met the garden's designer, Nakamura Aritomo, and tried to convince him to create another Japanese garden as a tribute to her sister who died in the camp. Aritomo, the exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan, declined, but he agreed to take her on as an apprentice so that she could learn the necessary skills to create the garden herself.
From this narrative thread, other narrative threads begin to spool out, including: Teoh's time in the slave-labour camp; her years living on the Majuba Tea Estate in the Cameron Highlands (where the threat of murder and kidnap by communist guerrillas put her life in constant danger); and her present situation in which she tries to fob off an historian, Professor Yoshikawa, seeking permission to use Aritomo's artworks (woodblock prints) — now in her ownership — in a book he is writing to prove his hypothesis that the emperor's gardener was also a tattoo artist.
These threads are told in a kind of random fashion, because they are revealed in a memoir that Judge Teoh is hurriedly writing before the illness with which she has been diagnosed leaves her unable to read or write. That illness is just one of many pieces of information she withholds from her friends. As the narrative gently unfurls we discover more of these secrets. It is not that she is an unreliable narrator, but that she only tells you what she wants you to know when she wants you to know it.
Surprise and mystery
As a result this is a novel full of surprises.
It is also a novel fully of mystery. I don't think it's a plot spoiler to say that midway through the novel Aritoma disappears — and no-one knows what happens to him. If he was enigmatic in life, he is even more enigmatic in death.
There's also the curious notion of how Judge Teoh managed to escape from a camp that no-one has ever heard of and one that even she cannot locate. And why does the Majuba Tea Estate seem immune to the war raging between the British and the Malayan nationalists — exactly which side is the owner on?
The garden as a focal point
The thing I most loved about The Garden of Evening Mists was the way in which Tan Twan Eng describes the garden and the art of creating it. I admit that I am a sucker for Japanese gardens, having learnt about them at university (as part of my studies in landscape architecture) and he brings to life their beauty, elegance and symbolism in an incredibly visual — and sensual — way.
And Judge Teoh is a wonderful creation; a Straits Chinese woman who hates the Japanese for what they did to her (and her sister) in the camp, but is able to put that aside to work closely with a Japanese man — even though his very presence reminds her of what it was like to be "a prisoner of the Japs".
Sometimes the narrative falls into a slight lull, but the multi-layered storylines provide sufficient intrigue to maintain the reader's interest.
Despite the gentleness of the prose, this is a book about extreme violence and cruelty in all its many facets.
But it does not paint things in black and white. This is a book full of light and shade, with the garden as its central focus, for it is the act of building the garden which helps heal the psychological wounds of both Judge Teoh and Aritomo. Later, it becomes a refuge, a place of solace, from the war happening in the hills beyond, and later still, it provides comfort to an ill woman trying to make sense of her extraordinary life.