The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng


The Garden of Evening Mists is the second book by Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng. It’s the winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize 2012, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012, and the winner for Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction 2013. Tan’s first book The Gift of Rain was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007. What amazing accolades to start a literary career!

The book is set in the exotic post-war pre-independent Malaya, a turbulent time in which people tried to pick up the pieces from the Japanese occupation, still under British government, while the Communist insurgency threatened everyday’s life. The protagonist is Yun Ling, a sole survivor of a Japanese camp. The book switches back and forth between the present day Yun Ling in 1980s and her experience immediately after the war. There’s no heading to explain which period each chapter is set, the only clue being the use of present tense or past tense, so it could be quite confusing at the beginning. An interesting editorial choice that I’m not convinced about.

Equally important character is Aritomo, a Japanese who previously worked as a gardener for the Emperor, and at the end of his career settled at the Cameron Highlands of Malaya. Aritomo is the neighbour of Magnus, a Dutch descent from South Africa. Magnus is a family friend of Yun Ling, and it’s through him that Yun Ling and Aritomo meet.

Yun Ling later becomes an apprentice to Aritomo, learning the art of Japanese garden. Her motive is to create a Japanese garden for her sister, who did not survive the same camp Yun Ling was in. Japanese garden was the dream they both played in their heads in order to survive the ordeals, but it was more the sister’s dream than Yun Ling. The fact that the garden is of Japanese style of course gives Yun Ling contradictory feelings.

I had the opportunity to go to Tan Twan Eng’s talk at the Hay Festival a couple of years ago. I had been to his talk and his contemporary and fellow countryman Tash Aw’s at different times, and to be honest I didn’t get much impression from Tan at all in person, which is one reason I had been putting off reading his book for a while (thanks to my goodreads group I had the push to pick it up). It was a panel of authors so he was kind of buried by the louder authors. Tan mentioned that the gardening part of the book was all research – he wasn’t into gardening at all before writing it.

That didn’t help because I personally also have little interest in gardening – I enjoy gardens but I don’t work on one. The thought that it was going to be 350 pages of gardening put me off, but let me just tell you that it’s not! Yes the garden and gardening is central to the theme, but the book encompasses so many other things. It is complex, and very ambitious, spanning multiple cultures and nationalities (indigenous Malays, Chinese migrants in Malaya, Japanese, Dutch South African, British), multiple historical events (WWII in Malaya, Boer War, Malayan Emergency), and multiple time periods. To tell all these in such beautiful writing is no mean feat by Tan Twan Eng.

I learned so much about a period and setting that I was not familiar with, even though Malaysia is not totally foreign to me. I spent 15 months living in Kuala Lumpur as a college student back in 1999. I have traveled the country up and down, from the south, JB (Johor Baru), to the north, across the Thailand border, from Penang to Malacca. And a few years later I lived in Singapore for 2.5 years, and had the chance to go back a couple more times to Malaysia.

It felt good knowing the Malay words that are sprinkled in the book (Indonesian and Malay language are largely similar), as opposed to language that I’m absolutely clueless about (French for example, hah). I’m also surprised to find familiar words from Magnus — those from South Africa adopted from Dutch. While Malaya was occupied by the British, Indonesia was occupied by the Dutch, so many Dutch words were adopted into Indonesian. My own grandmother from my mother’s side is what you’d call Straits Chinese (close to European culture/society, like Yun Ling) while my grandmother from my father’s side is what you’d call “peranakan” – Chinese that have assimilated more with the locals. (Though in Indonesia we don’t use these terms as it’s an issue that is more sensitive over there.)

Many things in the book felt both familiar and very unfamiliar at the same time. Tan Twan Eng is about a decade older than me, so the story he tells felt almost one generation removed from what I know. I haven’t read his first book, but it seems to cover similar ground, which is obviously something that he is passionate and cares very much about.

The book touches on difficult subject matters, but it was not a tear-jerker (or at least not for me). However there’s one section that sent me to a proper cry — a story that is told by one of the characters, about his experience as a young kamikaze pilot and his love, a fellow soldier. Apparently this story originally appeared (in a different and longer form) in the Asian Literary Review, Autumn 2007, Volume 5. I imagine this was received well, and the novel was extended from this seed of idea.

If I have a slight reservation it’d be on how monotone and melancholy the book can be (e.g. lots of moments where people stare off into space or the scenery), though whether it’s considered weakness or not is really down to one’s personal taste.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5 

The Garden of Evening Mists sparked my interest in the period and setting which I’m sure I’ll be reading more in the future. In the middle of reading I was reminded of The Railway Man (starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman) and watched it on Netflix. A very touching film based on a true story and I highly recommend it.

tan twan eng
Tan Twan Eng

A little anecdote:

A quote from beginning of chapter 3: “Teoh is my surname, my family name. As in life, the family must come first. That was what I had always been taught. I had never changed the order of my name, not even when I studied in England, and I had never taken on an English name just to make it easier for anyone.”
— obviously reflects Tan Twan Eng’s own view, as his family name is Tan and he also studied in England.

I went to two libraries to check his books in London. Knowing his family name, I went to shelves T first, but the books were not there. They’re under E for Eng!

Silence by Shusaku Endo

Love this new Picador Classic cover of Silence

Silence is a historical novel by Shusaku Endo, a Catholic Japanese, making his perspective unique in the country that primarily practice Shinto and Buddhism.

There’s historical note at the beginning of the book, giving the frame of the story: Christianity was first introduced to Japan by Francis Xavier and his colleagues in 1549. For the next 60 years, Christianity spread, finding favour in the Japanese court. By 1600 there were an estimated 300,000 Christian converts in Japan, though there started to be some oppositions. Between 1614-1640 it is estimated 5000-6000 Christians were killed by the authority who wanted to destroy Christian influence in Japan. The use of torture was introduced in an attempt to force Christians to apostatize – to renounce their faith. In 1632, the Catholic world was shocked by the news that Father Christovao Ferreira – the Portuguese leader of the Jesuit mission in Japan – had apostatized. By 1643, when Silence in set, Christianity only survived in underground communities and was ruthlessly suppressed.

So that’s a crash course of how Christianity entered Japan. It’s a crucial framing, and absolutely necessary to read, so don’t skip it! While Xavier and Ferreira are real historical people, Silence’s protagonist is Father Sebastian Rodrigues, a fictional character (though possibly based on composite of real life characters too). Rodrigues is a former student of Ferreira, who could not believe that his respectable teacher has apostatized. So apart from missionary duties, his personal interest is to find out what really happens to Ferreira.

The concept of apostatizing is a key point in this story. It is what makes you a true Christian. The Japanese authorities would often make light of it, saying that it’s not a big deal, that it’s just a formality, it doesn’t have to mean that you truly change on the inside, if you just step on this fumie and spit on it, it would make it easier for all of us, and we’d let you free right away.

But of course it is not that simple for the Christians. Either you keep to your principle or you don’t. There’s no two ways about it. It’s like there’s a line on the ground, and once you cross it there’s no turning back.

However, there’s one character who always apostatized when he was forced to, as he was weak – he admitted it himself. He would trample on the fumie, be freed, have deep regrets, wail for forgiveness, but apostatize when caught again and threatened with torture. Repeated over and over again. His struggles are interesting. It is pondered throughout the book, that it just happens that they live in the period of persecution. If they all lived in time of peace, people who apostatized may prosper as leaders of the church. How true is this? I imagine 99% of Christians today would apostatize in a blink of an eye with the first threat of torture.

Because religion is so central to the story, it’d be hard to talk about it without giving away your own beliefs to give it a bit of background about where you stand and how you may take the book. I was raised a Catholic, went to both Catholic and Protestant schools (at different times), but I’m now an agnostic. And because of that, I could sympathize with the struggles of Rodrigues, but all the way wondered why anyone needs to suffer and to die for an idea. So much pain, and for what? It was all so futile, so many lives wasted.

There are quite a few discussions between the characters in the book about this too. About Catholicism, Christianity, and why people felt the need to penetrate Japan with these ideas, a faraway country where people have a completely different belief system, i.e. the Japanese largely believe in polytheism – in spirits that live in all kinds of elements on earth, while Christianity is of course a monotheism – believes in a singular all powerful God.

Subtle differences between Catholicism and Protestant were another issue, which made an already volatile situation in Japan even more confusing, as the Catholics, who were the Portuguese and the Spanish, and the Protestant, who were the Dutch and the English, had their own problems with each other. One party would often dissuade the Japanese converts to listen to the other party. Poor the Japanese. As if there isn’t already a lot to take to learn about foreign Deus (God), and now there’s a different kind of foreign teaching that is true and not true. Sigh.

One aspect that I could see help the adoption of the faith by the Japanese is the class system of the society and how hierarchical it was. It must’ve been refreshing to learn a new teaching where everybody is supposedly equal and loved. True enough, majority of the converts were peasants.

I was acutely aware that the original period happened in 1600s, that the book was published in 1960s, and that I was reading this in 2015. Society is changing all the time, religions are evolving, and you probably read it differently now than if you read it at the time the book was out. And I believe it will be read very differently too half a century later. By then religion would probably be as condemned as racism or colonialism. But I digress.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – I loved reading it as a historical novel as it tells the story of the period and setting that I would never have learnt otherwise. But it may have a bigger impact on me if I read it a few years ago when I was on the brink of leaving religions forever. As of now I’ve been on the other side, the faith struggles could seem a bit.. silly. I love the ending, it is realistic, true to history, and doesn’t make this an evangelical novel – the direction I was worried it’d go into at certain points of the book.

Endo Shusaku

The Movie

Apt timing for me. As soon as I finished the book, I saw news about the upcoming movie adaptation by Martin Scorsese. I heard about the film being picked up a while ago, but wasn’t sure if they really went ahead with it or not – sometimes movie projects just peter out. But with these recent images, seems like we’ll be seeing it soon at the cinema.

Liam Neeson as Ferreira


silence film
Andrew Garfield as Rodrigues


(Adam Driver as Garppe)

Silence is my second entry for Japanese Literature Challenge 9 (I read Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima a couple of months ago) and it’s also a good selection for #diversedecember.

Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson


Housekeeping — Marilynne Robinson’s first book, was the last book I read for my Penguin online writing class. It was published in 1980, won a few awards, including nomination for the Pulitzer. Her subsequent novels Gilead and Home won even more awards, so it’s pretty clear that Robinson is high up there in the panel of literary darlings.

Housekeeping is not exactly about housekeeping, so one does not need to worry if he or she is not a fan of keeping house. The book revolves around two sisters, who were abandoned by first their father, then their mother. They moved with grandmother, who then passed away. A couple of great-aunts took reign for a winter, before the sisters are finally left to their aunt called Sylvie.

Sylvie is eccentric and does not quite follow the convention of a care giver. I loved this part of the story that gives attention to an oddball; how narrow the path our society expects everyone to be in, and easily dismisses or even fears anyone who doesn’t conform to these ideas.

The book is set in a rather haunting small town, with a lake in the middle of it that is central to the town’s soul, to the characters experience, and to the story. The lake is almost a character in itself, which reminded me about the frozen waterfall in the Norwegian classic The Ice Palace (Tarjei Vesaas). Another book that I was reminded of as I read along was The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (Pulitzer prize winner in 1995), possibly because of the rural American setting and the focus on family. The tone and the atmosphere definitely felt similar. If you like one you would like the other.

Housekeeping deals with the theme of isolation, loneliness, and sense of belonging, as quoted on the front of page of the newly published Faber Modern Classics edition (pictured above): “Because, once alone, it is impossible to believe that one could ever have been otherwise. Loneliness is an absolute discover.”

A bit of note about the edition: Faber writers were asked to submit their favourite Faber books for inclusion in the Modern Classics series, and Housekeeping was chosen by Barbara Kingsolver.

With all the accolades and praises on to this book, I thought the writing quality was on par with I expected. There were brilliant passages and many sentences that stood out. However — and it is rare for me to ask this of a novel — I kept waiting for something to happen, or some dark secrets to come out, but nothing ever did. There’s a tiny peak or ripples of action in the last 20 pages or so, but that is it. In all honesty, if Housekeeping never won any award or no well-known figures ever recommended it, I would never have thought it to be in any way significant. I wouldn’t have picked it up by myself, to be read, or to be recommended to people after reading. It would’ve been too quiet for me to notice it on my own.

Its length of 218 pages is its strength I think – making it lean enough to hold one’s attention. I’m happy to know that Gilead is less than 250 pages, so I’ll most probably read it. I already got it off Oxfam.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5 stars – High quality prose tying everything together. I probably didn’t quite connect to it on a personal level, but I liked it enough to want to read Robinson’s second book.


Houseekeping was included in the Guardian and Observer’s 100 best novels in English and Time magazine’s 100 Best Novels since 1923.

The Classics Club and the Importance of Reading Chair

It’s almost new year and thanks to my new reading chair my reading has been going incredibly well, so I feel confident to embark on a new project with The Classics Club:
50 Classics in 5 Years!

Mee's reading chair - where you can find me most of the time at home these days :)
Mee’s reading chair – where you can find me most of the time at home these days :)

Mr Mee and I moved house about 2 months ago, and we’ve been unpacking things very very slowly. A few weeks in, most of our stuffs were still in boxes all around the house, but I came home one day to find this lovely corner. Hubby assembled my new chair, put up the shelves, unpacked my boxes of books, arranged the books, the reading lamp, and my favorite small table. Even the books I wanted to read most were positioned on my eye level. How did he know? It was a coincidence — he’s not a reader so he doesn’t know the majority of books I read (the books on top of my TBR were in 1 box, but I had about 10 boxes of books in total).

And I didn’t ask him to do any of these — it was all on him.

Makes me so very happy ^_^

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