This is Tan Twang Eng’s second novel and his first, The Gift of Rain (2007) enchanted me with its poetic language and beautiful imagery. The Garden of Evening Mists gave me the same pleasure and obviously others, as it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year.
The main character is an elderly woman called Yun Ling Teoh, who returns to the tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands to a house and garden that she has inherited. Yun Ling Teo has aphasia, a neurological condition which is causing her memory to fade, and she writes her memories down in order to not forget her past.
And so the readers learn of her as a younger woman who comes to the Cameron Highlands to visit ‘Yugiri’, the only Japanese garden in Malaysia. Both Yun Ling Teoh and her sisters were held under appalling conditions in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, during which time her sister died. Yun Ling Teoh went to Yugiri to honour her sister’s wish to create a Japanese garden. There she meets the reclusive Arimoto, former gardener to the Emperor of Japan, and the creator of Yugiri.
Reluctantly, Arimoto agrees to take her on as an apprentice so she can learn how to create her own Japanese garden, rather than having him build one for her. Their relationship is initially strained, but grows into one of mutual respect and eventually love – beautifully built up by Eng, however it is his descriptions of the garden and the lush surroundings that are so pleasing to read.
During her time as an apprentice to Arimoto, Yun Ling Teoh lives with a friend on a tea estate close to the garden. Interestingly for South African readers, the owner of the estate is a South African called Magnus. Eng lives in South Africa for six months of the year, which explains his familiarity with Afrikaans and South African customs (such as braais). I must admit that I was somewhat irritated by Magnus, who I felt to be a bit of a caricature, however, he did not affect my enjoyment of the book, and his life creates the perfect colonial backdrop that contrasts with the harsher environments depicted in the novel.
I rather liked Yun Ling Teoh as a character. Eng does not romanticise her – she is prickly, independent and her ambiguous relationships with men make the reader realise how much damage her time in the prisoner-of-war camp has caused.
The plot that underlies Yun Ling Teoh’s story sometimes drags a bit and seems somewhat simplistic compared to the skill of Eng’s writing, however, it doesn’t detract from the book’s overall enjoyment.
I would highly recommend it.