This is an atmospheric novel
- Book: The Garden of Evening Mists
- Location: Cameron Highlands
- Author: Tan Twan Eng
This is an atmospheric novel with what might be one of my favorite heroines ever, a complicated, articulated, damaged-yet-hopeful woman who captivated me from the first page. Beginning in the 1960s or ’70s (I’m not entirely sure, the novel is told by Judge Teoh Yun Ling, one of Malaysia’s first female Supreme Court Justices. She has retired from the bench, a bit suddenly, and returns to the tea plantation owned by family friends. From then, in a desperate attempt to remember before she forgets, Yun Ling recounts her life after her release from a Japanese internment camp. The sole survivor, with a mangled hand and deep emotional scars, Yun Ling she throws herself into War Crimes work and eventually attends Cambridge University before returning to Malaysia to work. When she finds herself unable to cope with the government’s decision to release Japan from financial restitution to victims, Yun Ling escapes to the country in hopes of establishing a memorial garden for her sister.
Obviously, this is a novel about war, but the conflict is beyond just World War II: following Japan’s surrender, Malaysia was immediately gripped by a guerrilla war with the Communists, and Yun Ling’s close friends are an Afrikaner family from South Africa, survivors of the Boer War. The themes of armed, violent conflict are reflected in every interaction and experience Yun Ling has, for there’s no one in her life untouched by war. In an era well before the acknowledgement of PTSD, she — like everyone else in Malaysia — shoulders on, trying to find peace in whatever way possible.
Like Meira Chand’s novel, A Different Sky, this novel acknowledges the reality of colonialism, xenophobia, and racism that shaped Malaysia’s history. Yun Ling has deep seated hatred for the Japanese, yet she has to come to terms with her feelings when she commissions a gifted Japanese gardener to create the memorial garden for her sister.
While Yun Ling was the hook for me, the writing, oh, the writing swept me away. Yun Ling is known for her well written judgements, and her story is told in a clear but pretty way. Such evocative, poetic sentences: “These aged Englishmen had the forlorn air of pages torn from an old and forgotten book.” (p13) “…too many incontinent lorries leaking gravel and cement as they made their way to another construction site in the highlands.” (p17) “I do not bother to sieve the disdain from my voice.” (p22). Despite the prettiness of the writing, the novel still feels restrained in a way, like Yun Ling, and the wealth of plot and angst don’t overwhelm the story.
While I’m sure I’m conveying my enthusiasm for this book, I’m hope I’m also conveying the wonderful experience of this layered novel. More than just a historical novel, this is a fantastic character study and examination of a part of the world very unfamiliar to me. I often found myself chewing over this book as I listened to the news about the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, thinking of those survivors, and I’m even more appreciative of this novel. A quiet, lovely book with punch.