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The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
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The Garden of Evening Mists (edition 2012)

by Tan Twan Eng

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549None18,239 (4.25)1 / 303
Member:msf59
Title:The Garden of Evening Mists
Authors:Tan Twan Eng
Info:Weinstein Books (2012), Edition: Original, Paperback, 352 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****1/2
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The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

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    Black Oxen by Elizabeth Knox (lottpoet)
  2. 00
    The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: Non-linear storytelling. Post-colonial novel. Deals with a period of political unrest.
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I love a book that teaches me something as well as entertains and that is the primary reason I enjoy historical fiction. This book taught me about a period of history I knew very little about - the experience of Malaya during WWII at the hands of the Japanese and their experience afterwards during the communist insurgencies. I also learned about tea plantations, Japanese gardens, the Japanese experience of WWII and the art of horimono as well as the importance and subjectivity of memory. This book was a delight on many levels. ( )
  PennyAnne | Mar 29, 2014 |
The Garden of Evening Mists is a novel I discovered last year thanks to several members of LT who wrote glowing reviews about it, and while I don't know if I can do as good a job as they did in conveying why I was prompted to give it a rare 5-star rating, I can say this is a novel I would unreservedly recommend to everyone, except readers who prefer to avoid difficult, disturbing topics, as a good portion of it deals with the brutality the Malayans had to suffer under the Japanese invasion during WWII. A fascinating story and exquisite writing carried me away and I both badly wanted to devour the whole thing in one fell swoop, while at the same time not wanting it to end. The story is told by Yun Ling Teoh, a woman of Chinese descent, born in Malaysia. When we meet her at the very start of the novel, she is poised to go into retirement two years early from her position as a justice of the peace. She is secretly suffering from a mysterious brain condition which threatens to strip her of the capacity for expressing herself or understanding language, and this prompts her to write her life story before she loses the ability to convey her memories. To take on this task, she has returned to a former residence in the Cameron Highlands, where the Garden of Evening Mists of the title lays in need of much repair.

In 1951, Yun Ling found herself to be the sole survivor of a Japanese internment camp and decided she wanted to create a Japanese garden in memory of her sister, who kept them both alive by retreating to an imaginary garden through the worst of the treatment they suffered while in captivity. We are not to learn till late in the story what circumstances led to the death of this beloved sister, but we know Yun Ling has decided to devote the rest of her life to honouring her memory. There is a Japanese gardener, Aritomo, living in the Highlands; he is the exiled former gardener of the emperor of Japan, whom Yun Ling approaches to ask him to create a garden for her sister. This she does despite her strong reservations; she has developed a visceral hatred for the Japanese after the treatment she suffered during the internment in camps which, according to what we know and what is told in the course of the novel, had a lot in common with the dehumanizing brutality the Nazi Germans showed in the concentration camps of Europe.

We learn that Aritomo didn't accept to create this memorial garden, but offered instead to take her on as his apprentice, and Yun Ling accepted in hopes she would later be equipped to create that garden herself. The novel travels back and forth in time, from the present—with the aging Yun Ling telling her story and trying to get the long-neglected garden back into its original shape—to 1951, the year she worked on Aritomo's 'Garden of Evening Mists'. During that time, Communist rebels were terrorizing the land, and Yun Ling's life was endangered as she had pronounced judgments to convict and deport some of these rebels. Eventually, she takes us back to the internment camp during the war, whose location has always remained a mystery, and where we know Yun Ling lost two fingers and her beloved sister. The Yun Ling of 1951 and the narrator of the 'present' incarnation (sometime in the 80s) is embittered by her experiences in the war and weighed down by hatred for her former tormentors, but her daily contact with the garden and Aritomo, and her wish to leave behind a legacy in her sister's name, help her to revisit her past and try to cast it in a new light.

There are mysteries and complexities at the heart of the novel which are only revealed when Yun Ling the author is ready to unearth them. It is a visually lush experience, with exquisite writing which had me rewinding the audiobook constantly, just for the pleasure of 'rereading' sections filled with gorgeous imagery. In some rare cases when I've listened to an audiobook, I feel compelled to also buy the book in a print edition, and this is one such case. That being said, I was completely satisfied with the audiobook and found the narration by Anna Bentinck truly excellent. She has a facility with accents, which she renders in a subtle way, and also adjusted her voice so that it was easy to follow whether we were hearing the older, or the younger Yun Ling, situating us in time with no further markers. But I want to get a paperback copy of this novel so I can do something I never allow myself usually, which is to underline all the little moments of pure poetry so I may savour them at my own pace. This novel, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 would definitely have deserved to win, and might have done so if it hadn't had the bad luck of being nominated in the same year as Hilary Mantel's equally excellent Bring Up the Bodies. I'll be looking out for whatever else Tan Twan Eng puts his hand to.

I should add that reading this story not very long after finishing Snow Falling on Cedars and watching the movie version of that novel last week, formed an interesting change of perspective; where Gutterson’s novel dealt with the discrimination Japanese Americans suffered during WWII and it’s aftermath, this book showed us the kinds of horrors the Japanese army inflicted on it’s victims during the same war. However, Tan Twan Eng, far from dwelling solely on these shameful events, also shows us a Japanese culture, and individuals within that culture, who are capable of great acts of beauty, and of mercy. ( )
9 vote Smiler69 | Jan 19, 2014 |
The novel opens in the mid-80s when Yun Ling Toeh has just resigned as a senior judge and returns to the Cameron Highlands, a place she knew pre- and post-war. Pre-war because her father and Magnus Pretorius, a transplanted South African and owner of a large tea plantation were close friends, subsequently estranged but Yun Ling remained close to the family. Yun Ling was also there post-war disillusioned with the process of bringing war criminals to justice, and needing to deal with the horrors of her wartime in a brutal, secret Japanese camp where her sister, Yun Hong, was forced into service as a ‘comfort woman’. Yun Ling was the sole survivor of the camp and she wants, as homage to her sister, to build a Japanese garden, something her sister had loved ever since a pre-war family visit to Japan. Yun Ling discovers, nearby in the Cameron Highlands, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, called Yugiri, the creation of Aritomo, friend to Magnus and exiled Imperial gardener from Japan who spent the war in the highlands of Malaya. Despite her aversion to, and even hatred of, all things Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden for her sister; instead he takes her on as an apprenctice to teach her the art, and then as a lover, and then one day he disappears on a walk in the jungle. A backdrop to all of this is the increasing violence of the Malaya from communist insurgents. In the mid-80s, Yun Ling returns to the Highlands, dealing with a neurological disease that will rob her of her mind and memory, and thinking that she should put down thoughts before they are gone. She also has to deal with an academic from Japan, Tatsuji, who wants to publish a work on Aritomo’s life and particularly his wood block cuts, and she becomes more involved in the history of his life, particularly his wartime experience. And so the novel moves back and forth in time.

I liked this novel very much. I liked the well-drawn characters, the realistic feel of the period when the end of the war and Japanese occupation ushered in another period of violence stemming from decolonization and communist rebellion, the themes dealing with memory, the impermanence of life, the enigma of lives and of actions taken, and the sheer strength of the writing.

I found two large metaphors that frame themes of the novel. This first is in Magnus’s garden where Yun Ling finds two statues: one of Mnemosyne, the goddess of Memory and the other, according to Magnus, of her twin sister, Forgetting. Yun Ling protests that there is no such goddess, but Magnus argues perhaps she has just been forgotten, even her name, and Yun Ling notices that, “…her face looked almost blurred; even the creases of her robe were not as clearly delineated as Mnemosyne’s” . Much of the novel is built on memory: Yun Ling’s memories of her family and their pre-war lives, the effects of the war and decisions made, the degradation and death of her sister, her relationship with Aritomo, the secret about her life in the camp that she carries with her….but memory is fallible and malleable, it shifts and forgets and re-shapes, it rounds off edges and forgets through omission and commission, it even restructures and reshapes the ‘reality’ of what is being remembered and thus changes itself. At one point, Yun Ling muses, “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.”

All of this is in play, as it would be for anyone, as Yun Ling looks back over her life and in particular her relationship with Aritomo. She wonders, toward the end of the book, “Are all of us the same [like bats], I wonder, navigating our lives by interpreting the silences between words spoken, analyzing the returning echoes of our memory in order to chart the terrain, in order to make sense of the world around us?”

Yun Ling fears the loss of memory through age or, in her case, disease for, “…what is a person without memories? A ghost, trapped between worlds, without an identity, with no future, no past.” “…I realize there are fragments of my life that I do not want to lose, if only because I still have not found the bow to tie them up with.”

The other metaphor is the garden itself. A Japanese garden is designed, controlled, sculpted, intended to enhance the aesthetic experience of nature and life through placement and angles and views, but to go beyond that to “reach inside you. It should change your heart, sadden it, uplift it.” Just as relations with people can sadden but should uplift; but life can never be designed and sculpted and the garden which changes constantly, “has to make you appreciate the impermanence of everything in life.” Yun Ling’s life is a testament to impermanence and the inability to design and control beyond a short horizon.

I sometimes think that one of the biggest challenges for a writer has to be to find fresh similes and metaphors, those constructs used to convey ideas or images in striking and illustrative and memorable ways; it is so easy to fall into well-worn practices. I think Eng excels at freshness and imagery:

“…too many incontinent lorries leaking gravel and cement…”
“I found the wooden viewing tower half-hidden in the trees, like the crow’s nest of a galleon that had foundered among the branches, trapped by a tide of leaves.”
“…the kitchen chimney scribbling smoke over the treetops.”
“Mists escaped from the water’s surface, whispers only the wind could catch.”
“…a gray heron cocked its head at me, one leg poised in the air, like the hand of a pianist who had forgotten the notes to his music.”
“Sparrows rise from the grass into the tress, like fallen leaves returning to their branches.”
“The walls in the hallway were painted white, the yellow wood floorboards buttered by the evening sun through the windows.”
“The cicadas wove a mesh of noise over everything. Birdcalls hammered sharp, shiny nails into the air.”
“…a spiderweb tethered to twigs by strands of silk, sieving the wind for insects.”
“The foothills began here, rising into mountains tonsured in clouds.”
“The temple was a collection of low, drab buildings barnacled to the side of the mountains.”
“We walked up to the temple’s entrance. A pair of cloth lanterns, once white, hung from the eaves, like cocoons discarded by silkworms. Blackened by decades of soot and incense smoke, the red calligraphy painted on them had ruptured and bled into the tattered cloth, words turned to wounds.”

Wonderful . A novel well worth reading.
  John | Nov 12, 2013 |
With all the science fiction, fantasy and horror I've read, it was time for something a bit more normal. So, my friends at LibraryThing and my Excel of book lists and awards recommended 'The Garden of Evening Mists' to me. I was drawn to it partly because of the Japanese gardening in it.
The story is told by Yun Ling Teoh, a judge in Malaysia who is retiring and writing down her life story. We see three periods in her life, in World War II when she, together with her sister is captured and held in a Japanese internment camp, after the war as an apprentice to former gardener of the Japanese Emperor Nakamuro Aritomo to build her sister the Japanese garden she always wanted, and now, when as an old woman she has returned to the garden after many years.
Despite the terrible things that happened to Yun Ling Teoh and Malaysia during and after the war, the story in the book is wonderful. About how she learned to deal with her anger and loss, about the survival during hard times by her, her South African tea-plantation owning friend and Aritomo, a Japanese man living in Malaysia. It takes her all her life to make sense of it, but the beautiful thing is, she does in the end. It just is a lovely book to read, beautifully written and with gorgeous descriptions of both the garden and Malaysia. Five out of five stars. ( )
  divinenanny | Nov 11, 2013 |
I was very struck by this book's examination of the power of showing respect in spite of everything. What a challenge. The author conjures a beautiful garden setting - I longed to go there. ( )
  Rosie-Anne | Oct 28, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 44 (next | show all)
The language is as lush as the landscape he seeks to describe. His prose is punctuated with clever imagery; in reuniting with Teoh, Eng brilliantly describes Frederick's wry reaction "A smile skims across his face, capsizing an instant later."

Though on the whole the descriptive narrative was attractive, at times more concision might have saved it from becoming overwrought, as in my view it was, and rather frustratingly holding back what was otherwise a compelling and unique story.
 
As in his first novel, The Gift of Rain, Tan employs exotic settings and mystical aspects of Japanese culture to drive his narrative. But this time the effect is darker. Aritomo's mastery of the art of shakkei - "Borrowed Scenery" - initially seems enlightened, but as we come to question his true motives for absconding to this obscure backwater, it appears increasingly deceptive.
Though later plot elements surrounding a search for buried wartime treasure do not always complement the atmosphere Tan has carefully constructed, this is a beautiful, dark and wistful exploration of loss and remembrance that, appropriately, will stay with you long after reading.
 
This novel ticks many boxes: its themes are serious, its historic grounding solid, its structure careful, its old-fashioned ornamentalism respectable. The reason I found it impossible to love is the quality of the writing. There is no discernible personality in the dutiful, dull voice of Yun Ling, and non-events stalk us on every page: "for a timeless moment I looked straight into his eyes"; "For a long while he does not say anything. Finally he begins to speak in a slow, steady voice." The self-conscious dialogue resembles a history lesson collated for the benefit of the western reader, and everything is ponderously "like" something else, so it takes twice as long: "We were like two moths around a candle, circling closer and closer to the flames, waiting to see whose wings would catch fire first." Despite the dramatic events, the overall effect is one of surprising blandness, like something you've read before.
 
This is a good old-fashioned story with a plot that arcs gracefully, maintains suspense, and stays true to characterisation. Yun Ling’s independent spirit and her anger seep like ink-stains into the narrative, but its distilled essence is a quieter appraisal of the dichotomy of memory, its treacherous failures, its cruel conveniences, its fadeout and deliverance. Outside Magnus’s house are two statues—one is of Mnemosyne the goddess of memory and the other is of her twin sister, the goddess of forgetting, whose name, of course, has been forgotten.

Here, too, the garden is the conceit. “A garden borrows from the earth, the sky, and everything around it, but you borrow from time,” Yun Ling accuses Aritomo, “Your memories are a form of shakkei too. You bring them in to make your life here feel less empty. Like the mountains and the clouds over your garden, you can see them, but they will always be out of reach.” The garden that Yun Ling intends to make is about more than a desire to preserve the memory of her sister, though, for in many ways, it was the idea of this garden that kept the sisters hopeful through their long internment. The Japanese garden, with its many deceptions and beauties, becomes a well-formed metaphor for the ways in which our lives are lived.
 
Aritomo, the enigmatic former gardener to the Emperor of Japan who glides through Tan Twan Eng’s second novel, tells his female apprentice in the Cameron Highlands of early-1950s Malaya that “Every aspect of gardening is a form of deception”.

Just the same applies, you might argue, to the art of fiction, with its incomplete points-of-view and deceptive trompe d’oeil vistas. Tan’s story here is just as elegantly planted as his Man Booker-long listed debut The Gift of Rain, and even more tantalisingly evocative.

Suffused with a satisfying richness of colour and character, it still abounds in hidden passageways and occult corners. Mysteries and secrets persist. Tan dwells often on the borderline states, the in between areas, of Japanese art: the archer’s hiatus before the arrow speeds from the bow; the patch of skin that a master of the horimono tattoo will leave bare; or the “beautiful and sorrowful” moment “just as the last leaf is about to drop”.
added by kidzdoc | editThe Independent, Boyd Tonkin (Apr 28, 2012)
 
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Epigraph
There is a goddess of Memory, Mnemosyne; but none of Forgetting. Yet there should be, as they are twin sisters, twin powers, and walk on either side of us, disputing for sovereignty over us and who we are, all the way until death.

Richard Holmes, A Meander Through Memory and Forgetting
Dedication
For my sister

And

Opgedra aan A J Buys — sonder jou sou hierdie boek dubbel so lank en halfpad so goed wees. Mag jou eie mooi taal altyd gedy.
First words
On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan.
Quotations
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.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
Malaya, 1951. Yun Ling Teoh, the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle-fringed tea plantations of Cameron Highlands. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the emperor of Japan. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in memory of her sister, who died in the camp. Aritomo  refuses but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice "until the  monsoon comes." Then she can design a garden for herself.

As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to the gardener and his art. while all around them a communist guerilla war rages. But the Garden of Evening Mists remains a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all?
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"Malaya, 1951. Yun Ling Teoh, the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle-fringed tea plantations of Cameron Highlands. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the emperor of Japan. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in memory of her sister, who died in the camp. Aritomo refuses but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice "until the monsoon comes." Then she can design a garden for herself. As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to the gardener and his art, while all around them a communist guerilla war rages. But the Garden of Evening Mists remains a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all?"--P. [4] of cover.… (more)

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