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The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (2013) is set in Teoh Yun Ling’s garden in Malaya from the 1950s to 1980s.

Before the war, when Teoh Yun Ling was a teenager, her sister told her about Aritomo, the extraordinary Japanese woodblock print artist and gardener, who was once gardener to the Emporer of Japan, now living high on a misty mountain in Malaya. His garden was called Evening Mists. After the war, at the age of 27, Yun Ling set out to visit the gardener, and to ask for his assistance.

In the ten years between first hearing Aritomo’s name and finally meeting him, a lot had happened in her country and in her family. Japan occupied the British colony of Malaya after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, and took control until its surrender to the Allies in 1945. It was the dividing line between the past and the future, between the old order and the new order. During the war, Yun Ling’s sister Yun Hong was killed.

Now, Yun Ling wanted to honour her sister by building a memorial garden, the most beautiful garden she could create, but she needed Aritomo’s help. She needed bravery to face a man who came from an enemy nation – could she, and he, put aside the brutal part of history that she wanted to forget and to remember at the same time?  

Yun Ling wants Aritomo to teach her about gardening, and he agrees to work together to create the Yugiri garden in her sister’s memory. At no time, at their first meeting and for the next 36 years, did he apologize for what his countrymen had done to her sister, and to her. She had expected it; she had hoped for some acknowledgement of the pain. But she had to put aside her prejudices if she wanted to learn from him. 

Thirty-six years later, Yun Ling, the narrator in this novel, born in Penang and living in Kuala Lumpur, is now Judge Teoh – only the second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court – and about to retire to write her memoir, her recollections of the war, and what Aritomo has taught her about gardening, art, history, love, loss, healing, and herself.  

She was instructed not to take notes during her lessons because the garden will remember everything; and not to wear gloves so that she could feel the soil with her bare hands. 

There was the layout of the garden to learn – and all the elements: stones, waterwheel, ponds, paths, islands, bridges, and lanterns, for instance. Then the plants, used sparingly. Moss was abundant.

With plants come animals. ‘The noise of insects sizzled in the air, like fat in a smoking wok. Birds cawed and whistled, disturbing the branches high above us, showering us with dew. Monkeys ululated, fell into a petulant silence, and then picked up their cries again.’ Cockroaches and centipedes too.

‘Every single plant and tree at Yugiri grew, flowered and died at its own rate. Yet there was also a feeling of timelessness wrapped around it.’

This is an interesting approach to history as readers learn of the conflict, the narrator and her sister’s childhood, and the healing essence of gardening – in bringing enemies together, a sister to life, and war wounds to their closure.

Photographer: Martina Nicolls

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