Early in The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng writes, “I felt I was about to enter a place that existed only in the overlapping of air and water, light and time.” This is an accurate description of a book that layers topics of Japanese garden design, Buddhist philosophy, and wartime brutalities. Narrator Yun Ling is a retired judge in Kuala Lumpur and a former prisoner of war. She also apprenticed in her youth to a master garden designer, formerly head gardener for the Emperor of Japan.
Yun Ling tells the story of her life in layers, moving between time periods the way mist moves up the mountain into clouds. Sometimes she’s talking about her life today, other times she tells the story of the concentration camp where the Japanese imprisoned her during World War II. Throughout, she relates her life to the principles of Japanese garden design. This softens the hard edges of a difficult life.
Tan also addresses the layers of race, ethnicity, and social class in Malaysia. Yun Ling is of Chinese heritage, raised in Malaysia. Other characters are English, Dutch Afrikaner, Japanese, and of course, native Malaysian. The story displays all the politics of the post-World War II era. It was a time fraught with conflict, rebellion against colonialism, and social inequality.
This is a backlist choice for me since it was published in 2011. Nevertheless, a book shortlisted for awards has significant credibility and didn’t disappoint.
Evening Mists is a slow build, partly because Tan writes in a deeply descriptive manner. But considering action and characters center on a renowned and mysterious garden, picturing it in detail helps. In fact, if I read the book again I suspect I’d find even more allusions and subtleties.
At the heart of it, Tan creates a likable if prickly narrator in Yun Ling. As the story progresses, we see her past and present vulnerabilities. She’s an independent woman in a time and place when this wasn’t appreciated. Her self-reliance is both a flaw and a mark of great beauty.
Like a misty morning, Tan created surprising moments and topics that reveal themselves as the story unrolls. Ultimately, I learned a great deal about a couple of Asian cultures through this book’s story. It includes history, philosophy, and social issues spanning decades if not centuries.
I recommend The Garden of Evening Mists if you’re hungry for a little Zen mixed in with political upheaval and wartime atrocities. The recurring garden story made the brutal parts a bit easier to get through.