Like most people, I discovered The Garden of Evening Mists after the ManBooker short-list was announced. The first thing that struck me about it was the title, which to me seemed to promise fable and intrigue. But, eventually, it was my ignorance that drew me to it. The book is set in Malaya, and talks about a time and place in history I didn’t (and still don’t) know much about.
We are our protagonist Yun Ling sometime in the recent present, years after her body has recovered from the horrors of torture by Japanese soldiers during the war. As the doctors diagnose her with impending dementia, Yun Ling decides to return to Yugiri, the Japanese garden she once worked on with Aritomo. She is determined to record her memories of Aritomo, “the man who was once the Emperor’s gardener”, her lover and one of the greatest Japanese ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) artists. After all, as Ling recalls, “even the palest ink will outlast the memory of men.”
As we jump back and forth between her memories, intriguing stories unravel- and learn about the war with Japan, the rebellions against the Malaya government, how life evolved in this community of British expats, old Chinese families, and Indian and African immigrants.
The story is fascinating, but for me what makes the book special is Twang Eng’s narrative style. Beautifully written, the book is as much about remembering as it is about forgetting, revealing as much as is concealed. This art of story-telling, of always leaving the reader/viewer waiting for more is central to the narrative – Aritomo’s Japanese gardens, the block prints of his ukiyo-e and even the body tattoo (horimono) he creates –tantalise the viewer with the promise of more.
This is not a happy story, it’s a look inside dark human hearts and their darker manipulations. Nevertheless, the sheer mastery with which the story is told, and the slow, surreal journey the narrative will take you on is enough to make you feel like you’re on one hell of a trip.
The review was originally written for a friend’s online book club.