Reviewed by Aaron Garrad
The Garden of Evening Mists
By Tan Twan Eng
ISBN 9781905802623, 2012, 351pp
Tan Twan Engs’s new novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, is set in 20th century Malaya with the narrative shifting back and forth in time between the 1950s and the 1980s. Much of the story is set in the 50s though, a tumultuous time for the resource-rich British colony, beset by a communist insurgency not long after its liberation from a brutal Japanese occupation.
Central to the story in both time periods is Yun-Ling Teoh, Supreme Court justice and labour camp survivor from the Second World War. The story opens in 1986 with Yun-Ling tidying up her office on her last working day before early retirement. Ethnic Chinese and only the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court bench, Yun-Ling is an accomplished and widely respected jurist. However, she has been diagnosed with Aphasia, a debilitating disease that will take away her ability to speak, read and write, with dementia to follow. She retreats to her property—Yugiri (Evening Mists)—in the hilly climbs of the Cameron Highlands and decides to write down her memories of the area before they disappear forever.
Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals up the gap and the world is in shadows again.
Her memoir becomes the cue for the story to move back in time to 1950 when Yugiri and its renowned gardens were owned by Aritomo, a Japanese migrant whose family has been Imperial gardeners since the sixteenth century.
Yun-Ling and her sister, Yung Hong, once accompanied their father on a pre-war business trip to Kyoto and were entranced by the beauty of its gardens. In one of many tragic ironies that plague Yun-Ling’s life, it is the creators of this wonderful aesthetic that not only invade her homeland, but capture, blindfold and then brutalise Yun-Ling and her sister in a clandestine labour camp. When Yun-Hong perishes, Yun-Ling vows to memorialise her with one of the Japanese-styled gardens she loved so much. Reputed to have been a former gardener to the Emperor of Japan himself, the inscrutable Aritomo appears to be the only source of the expertise she needs.
Although far from caricature, Aritomo is the exemplar ‘Jap’ for the time: austere, philosophical, unapologetic about the war. He rejects Yun-Ling’s offer of a gardening commission and makes her a counter-offer—she will be his apprentice instead. With the vow to her sister in mind, she reluctantly accepts and, among widening communist violence, learns the ancient principles of setting stones, borrowed scenery and how a garden is likened to a series of clocks: with plants and trees growing, flowering and dying at their own rate. A friend, surprised by the decision, warns her:
Gardens like Yugiri’s are deceptive. They’re false. Everything here has been thought out and shaped and built. We’re sitting in one of the most artificial places you can find. 
As you might expect, Yun-Ling’s burden is her resentment of the Japanese. Her restrained contempt is best understood in a scene where she, assisting the War Crimes Commission in Kuala Lumpur after the war, interviews a soon-to-be-executed Japanese war criminal. He makes a request of her: to mail a letter to his family when he’s been hung. Yun-Ling’s response is to correct his improper use of the verb for ‘to hang’, and she keeps the letter, unopened, for thirty-four years.
Yung-Ling’s Malaya is a beautiful place with hills, lush greenery, graceful birdlife and ancient monasteries. It also has a dark side, sheltering the communist terrorists, or CTs, who fight not only their colonial masters, but terrorise civilians as well. Perched on the edge of the dangerous jungle, Yugiri is conspicuous by virtue of its relative quiet.
Mystery provides an edge to the narrative without dominating it. It torments not only Yun-Ling—where is the site of the lost labour camp and her sister’s remains? Who is this man, Aritomo, what did he have to do with the war, and why is he so venerated back in Japan?—but the reader as well—just how did Yun-Ling come to be the only survivor of the forced labour camp? Also threaded through the story are rumours of Japanese war gold, stolen during the occupation and hidden in the jungle.
The story resonates with a range of themes: loss, brutality, taboo love, but the most important is that of memory and the vexing bipolarity of remembering that you wish to forget, and forgetting that you wish to remember.
The paternalistic Magnus Pretorius, estranged friend of Yun-Ling’s father and owner of the sprawling Majuba Tea Estate adjoining Yugiri, has a pair of statues in his garden. Yun-Ling knows one as Mnemosyne, the Goddess of Memory, but the other is strange to her. Magnus points out it is Mnemosyne’s twin sister, the Goddess of Forgetting; her name no-one seems to remember.
The Garden of Evening Mists is a captivating and moving story. It is Tan Twan Eng’s second novel; his first, The Gift of Rain, was long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2007.