A poetic soul within a prickly persona

Helen Boyd

In the third of our series of features on the language of the six historical novels shortlisted for this year’s Walter Scott Prizewe consider how Tan Twan Eng’s novel The Garden of Evening Mists combines poetic and abrupt language to create a controversial protagonist. 

GardenofEvening US

“Her written judgements are known for their clarity and elegant turns-of-phrase… ” His words flowered, became more laudatory.

This description of Teoh Yun Ling, a female Chinese-Malay judge, as she retires from her position as Supreme Court judge in Kuala Lumpur is an interesting one, in that it gives an insight into how she is perceived following a successful career. What quickly becomes apparent is the contrast between the clarity and precision that characterises Yun Ling’s everyday interaction, particularly in her working life, and the deeply troubled undercurrent of her emotional life.

Reviewers of The Garden of Evening Mists are agreed on the beauty and poeticism of Tan Twan Eng’s prose, but disagree on whether the novel is a ‘character novel’ or not.  As Yun Ling is the first party narrator throughout the novel, we are inseparably connected with her from the start, so on first glance, it would appear surprising that the novel could be seen as anything other than an intimate portrait of the primary character. In reality, however close we are to Yun Ling from a narrative perspective, our glimpses of her emotional fragility are oblique.

There are many reasons why a reader may not empathise or ‘like’ Yun Ling. One of these is that the language that she uses to describe different elements of her life makes her appear hardened and unemotional (although she is not), and her interactions with other characters often suggest that she is not a person who smiles often. Yun Ling retires from the Bench following a diagnosis of a degenerative neurological disease. When she talks about her work, her disease, or her imprisonment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, her sentences are short, with nothing extraneous. When describing the loss of a job earlier in her career, she says

“I lost interest in my work. I insulted my superiors. I quarrelled with my superiors. I made disparaging remarks about the government…..Thinking about it brought back a flood of bitterness.”

Not regret, but bitterness, still raw and negatively charged. Her friend Magnus Pretorius says to her,

“’This hatred in you’ he began a moment later, ‘you can’t let it affect your life.’

She replies,

‘It’s not up to me, Magnus’”

If it is not hatred that dominates her thinking, there is a certainly a wish to control and tame experiences and emotions. The garden is the most obvious metaphor of this. She wants to build a Japanese garden in memory of her sister who died in the prisoner of war camp, but nature is something to be tamed as every other element of her life,

“’What is gardening but the controlling and perfecting of nature?’ I am aware my voice is rising.”

Beneath a façade that is often prickly and abrupt, however, it is the language she uses when unobserved that illustrates the destabilising currents that affect her emotional life. She says herself that one of the reasons for writing down her experiences before her memory fades is,

“When I have forgotten everything else, will I finally have the clarity what Aritomo and I have been to each other?”


But the poetry of the book emerges from her uncertainty and lack of control: the reader’s feeling that the garden, her emotions, her recollections of horrific events cannot be tamed, whatever attempts she makes to do so. When she first enters the garden of Evening Mists,

“I felt I was about to enter a place that existed only in the overlapping of air and water, light and time.”

And of her waning life she says,

“I have become a collapsing star, pulling everything around it, even the light, into an ever-expanding void.”

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Posted by Helen Boyd

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