The Garden of Evening Mists

Written by Tan Twan Eng
Review by Alan Fisk

Malaysian Chinese Judge Teoh Yun Ling takes early retirement from the Bench in 1987 without telling anyone why. Now free of her obligations, she returns to the house and garden in the Cameron Highlands of northern Malaya that was left to her by the famous and enigmatic Japanese gardener Aritomo after he had walked into the jungle one day many years before and disappeared.

Yun Ling’s love for the Japanese garden, and for its creator, seems strange because she and her family had suffered greatly in Japanese prison camps during the Second World War. She renews close contact with her South African friend Fredrik Pretorius, who had come to Malaya in his youth to help on his uncle’s tea plantation and stayed for life.

Most of the novel is an extended flashback to the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Yun Ling began learning the skills of a Japanese gardener from Aritomo at the same time as the launch of the Malayan Emergency. This is a novel of love, creation, suffering, and mysteries, where even the questions can be as indistinct as the early morning mists that I remember from Malaya in the 1950s. There are no simple or logical motivations, and the only structure to life is the disciplined artistry of the Japanese garden.

The time and place are thoroughly imagined, although with a few odd touches: nobody in 1950s Malaya called a torch a “flashlight”. The South African Pretorius family seems to have been shoehorned into the novel rather awkwardly. I recommend this book, although the lack of any appealing characters makes this a novel to respect rather than to enjoy.