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?
There are many books that talk about the impact of World War 2 in Europe and America, but I am not aware of many books that talk about the Japanese aggression in South East Asia. So, this was a great book to expand my historical knowledge a bit more from the very scanty knowledge that I gleaned from school and college textbooks. Actually, let me correct that a bit…this is a great book to read, full-stop.
I liken this book to a swan, floating all gracefully on the water, looking so elegant and beautiful, but if you look under the water, you can see the feet splashing urgently doing the hard work of moving the swan around.
This book is like that, it contrasts the beauty and serenity of the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia with the troubled lives of the people living there. There is Magnus and Emily – an inter-racial couple. Magnus is from South Africa who fled the Boer War only to face the Japanese in Malaysia. Emily is his Chinese wife who faces scorn from her people for marrying a foreigner.
And then there is Judge Teoh Yun Ling – our narrator who is losing her memory. She wants to log down the events in her past before she forgets them completely, and we see her thinking back to the time she was a POW in the Japanese internment camps, her grief over her sister’s death in the camps, and her ever-present survivor guilt. She’s the only one from that camp to make it out alive.
She approaches Aritomo – a famous Japanese gardener to help her build a Japanese garden as a memorial to her sister. Her relationship with him is tense. He is Japanese, an enemy, and quite possibly be more than he appears to be. Why is such a famous gardener who worked for the Emperor of Japan, no less, living the life of a recluse in the Cameron Highlands?
All these threads weave together to form a really compelling story.
I saw a few not-so enthusiastic reviews on the web. Some of the comments were that the characters are too dry and dull with no personality. I am not so sure I agree with that view. All the main people have been traumatized in some way or the other, and it is a little too much to expect them to be very lively.
Another comment was that the book focuses too much on Japanese gardening and tattoo arts, and that the story flows too slowly. I agree with the gardening bit, the lectures on Sakuteiki and The Art of Setting Stones can get a little tedious, but that’s because gardening is not my primary interest. But these portions are not very extensive and they are always linked back to the main story.
In fact I was quite impressed with how in-depth the Japanese have taken gardening and tattooing (Horimono) to such a high art – both these art forms are covered in extensive detail in this book.
So, yes, if you want a fast-moving, stay up and read all night kind of book, this one is not for you. It is slow, meandering in places, but it’s atmospheric as hell and beautifully written to boot.
And it’s also pretty tricky. This book is told mostly in the form of memories, and since Judge Teoh is slowly losing hers (aphasia – a type of memory loss), we have the unreliable narrator who adds a bit of suspense trying to make us guess what she knows but doesn’t tell, what she’s done but can’t remember she’s done…I’d say there’s quite a bit of trickery there.
And very moving…there is a section in this book where a Kamikaze pilot bids farewell to his father before his flight. That section is so beautifully written, while still being understated. Judge Teoh’s memories of the camp are even more heart-rending. I couldn’t help feeling terrible about so many deaths over so many petty/trivial issues. It just goes to show the futility of war and the misery it causes.
What I love is how Judge Teoh was able to overcome her hatred and distrust and rebuild (at least to some extent) her life. After the camps, she studies law in UK, comes back as a prosecutor and finally becomes a respected Judge. I couldn’t help admiring her, and couldn’t help thinking that this is the lesson in the novel – to let go of hatred and don’t let it consume the self.
In short, this book is a must read, and a worthy entrant to the Man Booker shortlist of 2012. I haven’t read the other books in the shortlist, but this one must have definitely been a strong contender for the prize.
Although this book does not originate from Japan, because it covers so many aspects of Japan, I convinced Meredith to let me enter it for the Japanese literature reading challenge.
And if this review is not long enough, I thought I’d leave you with this wonderful photo of a Japanese garden taken from here. Visit his blog for a lovely review of this book.