The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
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This thread is for discussion of The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, which was selected for the 2012 Booker Prize longlist.
This story begins on the last day of Teoh Yun Ling's career as a Supreme Court justice in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur in the mid 1980s. Yun Ling has had, by every measure, a remarkable and successful life despite extreme hardship and loss. She was born to privilege, as a member of a wealthy Straits Chinese family, but at the age of 17 she and her older sister Yun Hong were captured by Japanese soldiers and taken to a prison camp hidden within the jungle of the Malayan Peninsula. The prisoners were brutally tortured there, and only one survived at the end of the war: Yun Ling.
After she completes her law studies in England, she returns to Malaysia to practice, serving as a prosecutor for the Malayan government in the trials of captured Japanese Army soldiers. Her sister's death continues to haunt her, and she decides to honor her sister's memory by building a Japanese garden, as Yun Hong loved them dearly. In 1951 she returns to the home of a family friend, Magnus Pretorius, a South African tea planter in Cameron Highlands in the Malayan state of Pahang, whose friend Nakamura Aritomo is a highly regarded gardener—and the former chief gardener to Emperor Hirohito of Japan. Yun Ling struggles to overcome her deep hatred of the Japanese, and works under Aritomo as an apprentice, helping him to rebuild his own garden while learning the craft from him.
However, the tranquil mountainous setting also hosts the Malayan National Liberation Army, a group of communist guerrilla soldiers who are at war with the colonial government during the Malayan Emergency. Colonists such as Pretorius are frequent targets of the guerrillas, subject to robbery, assault and murder, but Yun Ling is also at great risk, as she also prosecuted captured guerrillas after the war trials had concluded, and the communists in the area are aware of her presence there.
As Yun Ling becomes closer to Aritomo, she learns more about the hidden roles he assumed during the Japanese occupation, as she seeks to discover what happened to the other prisoners in the camp, and to achieve closure and inner peace with herself, her family and with him.
The novel is filled with numerous additional characters, story lines and themes, which delicately intersect and overlap each other. Certain seemingly insignificant events in the early and middle sections of the book become clearer as the book progresses, as Eng masterfully creates a story that requires close attention from the reader, similar to that which is necessary to understand and appreciate the finer aspects of a Japanese garden.
The Garden of Evening Mists is an almost indescribably beautiful, rich and rewarding novel with multiple layers that are expertly weaved into a coherent work of art. Tan Twan Eng deserves to be commended for this astonishing work, which would be a worthy winner of this year's Booker Prize.
i am perhaps not being fair, and it is definitely cleverly constructed, but didn't come together as a whole. ObviouslyI don't think it will win the Booker. It has literary merit, a worthy and harrowing plot line, but the actual writing stylistically just didn't do it for me.
To think that I was about to abandon this book at page 30! The metaphors were too obvious, the words too flowery, the happenings too thin. If I had abandoned it I would have missed out on so, so much. Before half way I thought I had a 4, then it was definitely a 4.5, but in the last 40 pages I knew I was reading a 5 star book.
The writing was always beautiful, even if it took me a while to get into the spirit of it. But that there is a story of such drama and emotion amongst it all is what made this book so special to me. The drama and emotion arent spelled out, but by the time we get to all that stuff, we know the characters so well, we know what is going on for them. This clever author makes me want to write my first fan letter. *gush gush* 5 stars
Finished reading: 22 August 2015
The Garden of Evening Mists by the Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng has received much critical acclaim and won both the Man Asian Literary Prize (now called the "Asian Literary Prize") in 2012, and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. The novel is especially praised for its beautiful language, but ultimately it is nothing more than an ordinary piece of pulp fiction.
Readers of The Garden of Evening Mists are confronted with an overwhelmingly beautiful style of writing, bringing to life the lush, emerald-green magic of the Malaysian forest, tea plantations and the beauty of Japanese gardens. There are rich allusions to Asian architecture, gardening and culture in general, mixing the finer sentiments of colonial history, with the harshness of the Japanese occupation, and Malaysian nationalism.
The novel has a large number of personae, whose complex relationships are gradually revealed to the reader. The narrative structure is not entirely linear. Most of the novel is a flash back of the main character, with further reminiscences embedded. However, the narrative develops beyond the time of the flashback point at the opening of the novel. The novel has apparently two main characters, or possibly three. With the large number of personae, and the four groups of characters, i.e. Yun Ling and her sister, the Japanese, the tea planters and the Communist freedom fighters, it seems the author was unable to focus on one particular group, and ultimately his fascination seems to lie most with the Japanese, particularly in the enigmatic character of Aritomo, the gardener.
The sub-plot in the novel of the freedom fighters of the South-African Transvaal, personified in the character Magnus Pretorius, whose name so clearly points to Pretoria, and his defiance of British colonial rule in Malaysia is mirrored in the guerilla of the Communist freedom fighters striving for Malaysian independence. Pretorius personal history at the hands of the British in South Africa, and his sister's death in a concentration camp, mirrors Yun Ling's experience during the Japanese occupation. In the novel, Tan Twan Eng writes that Pretorius found his home when he discovered that Jan van Riebeeck was buried there, in Malacca, "(i)n the church grounds" of St. Paul’s (p. 51). However, there is no church on the hill named St. Paul’s in Malacca, and old Van Riebeeck is buried in the Groote Kerk, Jakarta, Indonesia, formerly Batavia.
Although Yun Ling is presented as a very strong character, her submission to Arimoto, again and again, is a key feature of the novel. Her willingness to submit to Aritomo seems much more from a belated type of Stockholm syndrome that from love, as claimed in the novel. The relationship between Yun Ling and Aritomo lack depth, and it is increasingly obvious that Aritomo simply uses Yun Ling. In a way, she has never left the camp, and the place she is looking for is written on her back. The cruel irony of the book is that Yun Ling will never know the location of the camp, because she can never find it, although she creates and carries the key to finding it.
As the novel seemingly develops around two main characters, Yun ling and Aritomo, however, Yun Ling's position is that of submission to Aritomo, likewise The Garden of Evening Mists
has two entwined main story lines, in which the story line of Aritomo takes the upper and Yun Ling's takes the lower. Thus, the tragedy of the fate of Yun Ling's sister is made subordinate to the quest for Yamashita's gold, in the plot structure of the role of the Golden Lily, which, in the novel has been transplanted from the Philippines to Malaysia.
The major importance of the Golden Lily motive in The Garden of Evening Mists turns the novel into pulp fiction on the level of The Da Vinci Code; however, the beauty of the use of languages will attract literary readers. Still, particularly the end of the novel, may disappoint literary readers, and it is quite surprising why the novel was awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize for Literary fiction.