This is one of those novels which I feel is difficult for me to do justice. The characters and their heart-breaking stories will stay with me I am certain, along with the images of a Japanese garden in the beautiful highlands of Malaysia.
“I have become a collapsing star, pulling everything around it, even the light, into an ever-expanding void.
Once I lose all ability to communicate with the world outside myself, nothing will be left but what I remember. My memories will be like a sandbar, cut off from the shore by the incoming tide. In time they will become submerged, inaccessible to me. The prospect terrifies me. For what is a person without memories? A ghost, trapped between worlds, without an identity, with no future, no past.”
Malaya 1951 and Yun Ling Teoh a young lawyer having spent some time helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals, comes to Cameron Highlands, a beautiful mountainous area of Malaya, to meet a Japanese gardener; the mysterious Aritomo, the creator of the only Japanese garden in Malaya. This garden is famous for its peace and tranquillity a place for calm reflection.
‘A garden borrows from the earth the sky, and everything around it, but you borrow from time,’ I said slowly. ‘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.’
During the war Yun Ling and her beloved sister were interned in a Japanese camp deep in the Malaysian jungle, Yun Ling was the sole survivor of that hidden camp. As her sister was an enthusiast of Japanese gardening, Yun Ling wants Aritomo – a former gardener to the emperor of Japan – to design a garden in her sister’s memory. Aritomo offers instead to teach her to do it herself, telling her she can stay and work with him until the monsoon comes. As time passes Yun Ling becomes more and more drawn to her sensei Aritomo, and comes to appreciate fully his art and his system of gardening using the principles of “shakkei”, borrowed scenery. Slowly Yun Ling begins to tell her story, and the story of her sister and the terrible truths of what they endured at the hands of Aritomo’s countrymen.
During these days of the emergency in Malaya, communist terrorists hide deep in the jungle, emerging now and again to unleash terrible acts of violence. Yun Ling’s friend and sometime host Magnus Praetorius has remained surprisingly unaffected by these attacks, so Yun Ling is able to live on his tea plantation for a time. To the backdrop of the stunning scenery of Cameron Highlands and the coming Monsoon, Eng’s haunting and intense novel builds beautifully, the ambiguity of each character and the mystery of their pasts, making for a brilliant page turner, that is beautifully and intelligently written.
Almost forty years later Yun Ling – now Judge Teoh retires from the bench, and travels back to Yugiri – “evening mists” to negotiate the sale of some of Aritomo’s woodblock prints to an expert in his work. Ill and nearing the end of her life, Yun Ling needs to rekindle some memories and settle the past in her own mind. Surprisingly even after all the years that have passed, there are still mysteries surrounding Artitomo, the reasons for him leaving Japan in the first place, and his later disappearance into the Malay jungle forty years earlier.
This is a beautifully written novel, haunting and rich with imagery, I loved it – and what better thing is there to say about a novel than that. I would heartily recommend it to anyone.
The Garden of Evening mists fully deserves its place on The Booker shortlist. It would be a worthy winner – as would the other two shortlisted books I have read so far. However I don’t think it will win. I don’t think I can really explain why – and it’s certainly not meant as any criticism, because I loved it and think it is wonderfully well written. To me though, it doesn’t feel like a winner – but what do I know? – I have been wrong before.