This is my second book of the Man Booker Prize longlist, and very different to the first one I read. The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng, is not the kind of book I usually read, but that’s exactly why I wanted to read the Booker longlist in the first place: to take me out of my literary comfort zone and look at new, top-quality writing. Its setting and history, as well as the author, were unfamiliar to me, so perhaps as a book it challenged me more than others, but on the whole it was worth it.
Although the title of the novel seems gentle and beautiful, much of the content and background of the novel is quite the reverse. The story is narrated by Yun Ling, who was interned in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Malaya during the Second World War. Afterwards, she became a war crimes prosecutor and eventually a judge, but during the Malayan Emergency she worked with Aritomo, a Japanese gardener, overcoming her hatred of the Japanese in order to learn how to create a garden in memory of her sister, Yun Hong, who died in the camp. At the time of narration, One might expect this book to be a narrative of forgiveness, of coming to terms with the horrors of the past and present, but it is nothing so obvious; it is simply a process of remembering and revealing, and, to a certain, extent, understanding.
Occasionally the writing seems a little clunky, but mostly it is beautifully-crafted to evoke horror or beauty, sadness or joy. It can be a little difficult to follow the back-and-forth narrative, switching between different times in Yun Ling’s life, but this forces the reader to make an effort which is rewarded in the conclusion of the novel; in fact, for the last hundred pages, when some unexpected revelations occur, I found it remarkably tense and couldn’t put it down.
This is a book of remarkable contrasts. The epigraph emphasises the twin themes of Memory and Forgetting, made more poignant by the terrible things which Yun Ling has to remember, and by her imminent amnesia due to her deteriorating condition of aphasia. These contrasts are what drives both the plot of the novel and provides its structure. There is also the contrast between the beauty and mysticism of the Japanese garden, which offers Yun Ling a new way of approaching life, and the horror of the concentration camp where her sister died. This is crucial to appreciating the book, I think: like the Japanese garden, the book has a lot to offer, but much of it is deceptive, illusion created for the benefit of the reader, and we only know what we are meant to know.