Tan Twan Eng (2012) The Garden of Evening Mists Weinstein Books, New York; 352 pp.; ISBN 978-1-602-86180-0
In the evening mists of our lives, before the night takes us, memories become our most treasured possessions. For some, they are the only possessions. Our greatest fear is forgetting who we are and what we have been. Teoh Yun Ling, a recently retired judge, has a disease that will steadily obliterate her ability to use and understand language, and will progressively consign her memories to dust.
Yun Ling returns to a house named Yugiri in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia where she lived many years before with Nakamura Aritomo, a Japanese artist and gardener. The house is run down and the garden dilapidated after years of neglect, and she decides to restore them to their former state. In the process she recalls two vivid periods in her life: her internment by the Japanese during World War II and her life at Yugiri with Aritomo in the 1950s when Malaya was a British colony fighting a Communist insurgency. In each period she recalls fragments of memory, sometimes intricate and other times obscure. She is desperately trying to hold on to what she can remember, writing her memoirs before her disease causes all the words to become meaningless scrawl. She believes that the restored garden will still speak after language has forsaken her.
Yun Ling’s father was a wealthy rubber merchant and the family was targeted by the Japanese when they invaded Malaya because of the father’s support for the nationalist army in China. Yun Ling and her sister are sent to a prison camp in the jungle where the inmates are forced to dig a mine. The purpose of the mine is a mystery and as the war comes to a close the camp is destroyed and all its inhabitants, including the Japanese guards, are killed. Only Yun Ling escapes, aided by a Japanese agent. Yun Ling has spent the years since then searching for the camp site and the remains of her sister, all to no avail. She has harboured a deep anger about the way she was treated and about the loss of her sister, but we learn that her own actions were not always sincere or blameless.
Six years after the war, Yun Ling comes to the Cameron Highlands. Her friends, Magnus and Emily, run a tea plantation next door to Yugiri. Yun Ling wants Aritomo to build a Japanese garden as a memorial to her sister. He refuses, but takes her on as an apprentice so she can build a garden herself. All around them, the Communist insurgency is taking place, but Yugiri remains a sea of tranquillity, something that makes the Special Branch police suspicious.
Yun Ling develops a close relationship with Aritomo, despite her anger at the Japanese, and slowly learns the art of gardening and how it creates illusions in nature to transform the way we feel and perceive our world. Aritomo is also an artist, famous for both woodblock prints and tattoos. In Japan there is still much rumour and speculation about his work and Yun Ling receives a request from a professor who wants to write about Aritomo. Despite her intimacy with Aritomo, Yun Ling realises in conversations with the professor that there are many things about Aritomo she does not know or fully understand. In particular, his role during the war and the purpose of his garden in the highlands are things on which he will remain forever silent.
Frederik is the nephew of Magnus and Emily. He met Yun Ling when she first lived in Yugiri. He now runs the tea plantation and looks after Emily, in her eighties but still missing Magnus who died many years ago. As Yun Ling recalls the past and records her memoirs, she and Frederik re-examine events and speculate about Aritomo. It is clear that while Yun Ling chose Aritomo as her lover, Frederik has been in love with her for all that time. Yet the two of them have lived solitary lives, and as the night draws in they remain alone, with only memories to ponder.
This is Tan’s second novel and has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize. His writing is beautiful and evocative, and the meditations on memory show how the past influences the way we shift from the evening mists into that good night. The novel brings to life the cruelties of war and the world of pre-independence Malaya, including some of the social divisions that beset the emerging nation, but the focus is very much on loss, especially the loss of love. How should we reconcile that before we take our final rest? An exquisite read.