Tan Twan Eng

The Garden Of Evening Mists

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The Garden Of Evening Mists Summary

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The Garden of Evening Mists is a novel by Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng, first published in 2012. It centers on Judge Teoh Yun King, an accomplished woman who has risen above a traumatic past that included time as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War Two. Afterwards, she served as an apprentice to a Japanese gardener before eventually finding a prominent position in law. The narrative is split between three periods – the present of the 1980s, as her career draws to a close; the early 1950s, which is the main narrative; and a prequel set during the Second World War. Exploring themes of memory, guilt, forgiveness, cultural expectations, and the lingering trauma of war, The Garden of Evening Mists received overwhelming critical acclaim. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was the eventual winner of both the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. It was also a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2014.

The Garden of Evening Mists begins in 1980, as Judge Teoh Yun Ling announces her retirement. She is younger than most judges when she retires, and this surprises her peers on Malaysia’s Supreme Court. What she’s not telling anyone about her retirement is that she’s been diagnosed with a degenerative neurological condition. She begins to forget words and have trouble articulating things, and she knows that the disorder will invariably progress to the point where she can’t speak coherently or even understand the spoken or written word. At this point, flashbacks show her childhood in the era of World War Two. Ling was the third child of an affluent Malaysian family, but their life was completely upended when the Japanese invaded their country. Malaysia was one of the first places the Japanese invaded right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Ling and her parents fled the city along with her sister, Yun Hong. However, they were caught by soldiers who brutally beat the girls’ parents and took Ling and Hong captive along with a large group of child prisoners.

The girls were taken to a prison camp, where they were treated brutally. Hong, a beautiful girl, was forced to work in the camp brothel where she was regularly raped by Japanese soldiers. Ling realized that the only way to survive was to be useful, so she got a job in the camp kitchen, where she was able to sneak out food to her sister. She was caught one day, and a cruel guard cut off two of her gingers. Ling and Hong tried to stay positive by visualizing a beautiful Japanese garden that they once saw on a trip, and by escaping the daily cruelty of their lives. After the camp’s interpreter died, an officer named Tominaga Noburu made Ling his personal interpreter. He was kinder than most officers at the camp, and when it became clear the Japanese were going to lose the war, he took her out of the camp and told her to escape. She refused to leave Hong and tried to make her way back to the camp to rescue her, but when she arrived she saw a massive explosion set by Tominaga and knew the camp would have no survivors. She was found by an aboriginal boy who helped her to safety, and she immediately volunteered her services to work in the post-war judicial system. She watched as Japanese officers were tried for war crimes, and she desperately tried to find the location of the prison camp she was stationed at so the prisoners could be properly buried.

Ling went to visit friends who owned a tea plantation and met a Japanese man named Aritomo. He was the former gardener of the Emperor, and had an elaborate garden named Yugiri. Ling asked him to create a garden in Hong’s memory, but he refused. He did, however, offer to teach her gardening so she could do it herself. They slowly became friends, and one day he asked her for permission to give her a horimono, a ceremonial tattoo that would cover her back. She agreed, and when he finished with the design, he went for a walk in the woods and never returned, essentially leaving his house to Ling. She stayed there for a while until she left to follow her passion in the law. The story then returns to the present, as Ling heads to Yugiri after retirement. Although she generally turns anyone who visits away from the garden, she agrees to hear out Professor Yoshikawa Tatsuji, a respected Japanese author. He wants to write a book about Aritomo’s wood carvings. As they talk, Tatsuji reveals that he knows a lot about Aritomo, including his role for the Japanese government as the man who would hide stolen valuables. She realizes that Tatsuji believes she’s the key – the map on her back is the key to where he hid the valuables. The garden itself holds many clues, and she knows that the time is right to change the garden she’s preserved so carefully. She turns the garden into a memorial to both Aritomo and her sister, and muses that one day she’ll walk into the woods and disappear, just like he did.

Tan Twan Eng is a Malaysian novelist and lawyer who has written two acclaimed novels dealing with the Japanese occupation of what was British Malaya at the time – The Gift of Rain (2007) and The Garden of Evening Mists (2012). She is a frequent guest at literary festivals around the world.