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!

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9 thoughts on “The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng”

  1. I read this a long while back…I remember thinking how strong a person the protagonist was, and this was not just due to the terror she suffered during the war and it is reflected in the life she had. I also remember being interested in the history of tattoo (from Japanese gangsters, and a picture book based on characters from Water Margin, etc) and of course, woodblock printing – I even went to a woodblock painting exhibition! Not so into gardening….funny lah.

    1. The tattoo thing was new to me too, I found it very interesting. Personally all the mentions of Suikoden (Water Margin) gave me a nostalgic feeling, as I used to play Suikoden – the Japanese video games series. Perhaps in the future I will venture to reading Water Margin if there’s a good modern translation.

  2. I started this book when I went to malaysia for a very short work trip but never got around to finishing it. The writing was beautiful and I found the main character very compelling, but the book just moved too slowly for me to really get into it, especially with the stop-and-go reading I was doing on a business trip. I may give it another go, though, when I am in a more reflective mood.

    1. aarti, I agree the book isn’t suitable for a busy schedule as you need some time to sink into it, especially at the beginning. I also remember having to stop and wiki multiple times to find out more about the pieces of history mentioned in the book. Hope you get to try the book again sometime.

  3. So glad you liked this book.

    I haven’t read this one, but I’ve read his first, and was very impressed and moved by it. I have this one sitting on my shelves, but for some reason, have simply not been compelled to read it just yet. =)

    1. I plan to read one of Tash Aw’s book before I go back to reading Tan’s first book, so it may take me a while too. I’m curious to get different perspectives from different Malaysian authors :)

  4. I had exactly the opposite problem finding The Garden of Evening Mists in the library! I didn’t know any better, so I was looking for it under Eng, but the library had filed it under Tan. I had to ask a librarian for help finding it.

    I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it. I found it very powerful and such beautiful writing.

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