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The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

“My name is Teoh Yun Ling. I was born in 1923 in Penang, an island on the north-west coast of Malaya. Being Straits Chinese, my parents spoke mainly English, and they had asked a family friend who was a poet to choose a name for me. Teoh is my surname, my family name. as in life, the family must come first. That was what I had always been taught. I had never changed the order of my name, not even when I studied in England, and I had never taken on an English name just to make it easier for anyone.”

Good for you Tan Twan Eng, I mean Yun Ling, the protagonist. But this may very well be Tan’s sentiment about his name. Tan is his last name, not Eng. Twan-Eng is his first name because in the Chinese culture, the family must come first. So back to the book, Teoh Yun Ling was 17-year-old when she first heard about Nakamura Aritomo. A war would come, and a decade would pass before she would journey to see him. Yun Ling is a survivor of the Japanese camp during WWII, she has spent the last few years helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals and Communist Terrorists (CT) who are fighting the post-independence government in the rain forest and in the highlands. Yun Ling’s sister, Yun Hong, died in the camp.

Despite Yun Ling’s hatred to the Japanese, she asks Aritomo to create a memorial garden for her sister. The vision of the Japanese garden they saw in Kyoto when both sisters were on holiday was the image that gave them hope while in the camp. Aritomo however refuses but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice so that she can design her own garden for her sister. As Yun Ling begins work in the garden named “Yugiri” – The garden of evening mists, another war is raging in the hills and jungles beyond. The Malayan Emergency is entering its darkest days; communist guerillas are raiding houses, killing and plunders the locals, seeking to take over the country; while the nationalists (Yun Ling’s father was one of them) are fighting for independence from centuries of British rule. It was a troubling time for Malaya (before it was called Malaysia, upon independence). Lets us step back from the book and I’d like to introduce you to Cameron Highlands…

Malaysia is a tropical country and temperature hovers around 33 to 35 C everyday. One of the best highland retreats in Malaysia is the Cameron Highlands. From the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, the plateau is a good 214 kilometers away.The Cameron Highlands are the largest and most genteel of the hill resorts in Malaysia. It’s located in Pahang’s north-western corner, at an altitude of 1,829 meters.The Cameron Highlands is one of Malaysia’s most extensive hill stations. It covers an area of 712 square kilometres. The Cameron Highlands were discovered by William Cameron in 1885. In those days the British planters found out that the mountains were very fertile. Because tea was a prized commodity among the colonies, they decided to grow tea on the slopes of the Cameron Highlands.

Cameron Highlands Ye Olde Smokehouse is where Yun Ling frequent for meals and drinks with Frederick or Magnus

But Yun Ling was never quite sure who Aritomo was. Why is he exiled from his country? Why did he come to these mountains? Does Yun Ling’s survival from the camp connected to Aritomo?

The opening of the book was engaging. Judge Teoh is resigning from her job. She walked through the court house, says her goodbyes to her colleagues and returned to Cameron Highlands to restore the garden that she built to commemorate her sister. You see Judge Teoh or Yun Ling’s memory is fading. An early sign of Dementia. She has to do what is necessary before she lose her memory. She is also being pursued by Tatsuji, a Japanese historian who studies Aritomo works, which includes gardening and also lesser known his hiromono art. Aritomo is a gardener and he is also a hiromono artist. A tattoo artist. Art has its many application. Aritomo is obviously a talented man.

By the time I reach the middle of the book, it went through a lull. There were many references on Chinese festivals and folklores, songs of Afrikaan and Boer war, Malaysian flora and fauna, birdnest and cuisines, Japanese art of gardening and tattoo etc etc Tan was keen to showcase the best of cultures, but there were so many cultural references that I felt I was bombarded by it. I understand that Tan is a culturally diverse writer and could mix and mesh these different cultures together but it made me lose my reference point somehow.

I love Japanese gardens. It gives my eyes the deserved rest after a day long of cluttered and busy work life. (see also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sakuteiki)

Just when I reached page 200 the pace began to pick up. Someone was stabbed by the guerillas and Yun Ling narrates her life in the concentration camp. It was harrowing and heartbreaking. From then on I began to savour every single sentence and word. Scenes of the rolling hills and lanterns in the sky were so beautiful that I agree with Independent review that says “an elegant and haunting novel of war, art and memory.. its beauty never comes to rest.’ I am reluctant to compare Tan with Kazuo Ishiguro. Although this book is reminiscense of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the day I thought Tan brought something extra to the piece. He brought more culture, more plotting. He is good at painting vivid scenes and deft at crafting characters which are morally ambiguous and find themselves caught in the dilemma of love and hate (loving someone the protagonist should be hating – similar to the theme of The Gift of Rain). Many writers flopped at their second novels after their first, I’m pleased to say Tan didn’t, he only did better.

Like Alex I brought a lot of background knowledge to my reading of The Gardens of Evening Mists too. The country setting is one that I was born and raised. Because of this reason I may be less objective and less impartial in my scoring, so you can ignore them if you wish. 🙂 I’d love to see this win the Man Booker though but I’m afraid that judges may not be able to relate to the cultural references and a somewhat “different” writing style.

She (Emily) touches my wrist lightly. ‘ We might be suffering from different illnesses, but it means the same thing in the end, doesn’t it? Our memories are dying.’ We do not speak for a few moments. Then she says, ‘At my age, you know what I wish for? That I should die while I can still remember who I am, who I used to be.’ – page 178

The ambience is beautiful. Makes me long to go back to Cameron Highlands and live there for awhile. I haven’t been there since early 80’s, things may have changed. It is haunting, I remember the scene in the book long after I put down the book. The book is subtle and sensual. Highly recommended.


SPOILER, ONLY HIGHLIGHT THIS TEXT IF YOU HAVE READ THE BOOK (More questions):  What do you think happen to Aritomo? Do you think he is so guilty of what his country did to Yun Ling that he decided to end his life? by the indication of the archer Hou Yi shooting the sun in the Japanese flag. What was the significance of YunLing’s tattoo joining up with the landscape of the garden? Any answers?

Other views:

Alex in leeds: All I will say is that I found the reason for Yun Ling’s flashbacks heartbreaking and I had to occasionally put the book down after a plot or character shift to absorb what it meant for the story as a whole. I felt wholly engaged as I read this, something I feel surprisingly infrequently with modern novels and which made me feel somehow more complete as a reader.

Chasingbawa: I was continuously impressed by the spare, beautiful writing. The characters retained enough mystery to keep you wanting to know more. And the story, well, it is heartbreakingly beautiful.

Caribousmom: Eng’s writing is gorgeous. He demonstrates a deep understanding about how events shape our lives and how the natural world is intricately enmeshed with who we are as humans. He also understands the complexity of people – the multiple layers which make up our lives and the hidden secrets we all carry. The Garden of Evening Mists is a literary treat. Readers who love literary fiction will find themselves pulled into this introspective and exquisitely written novel.

Paperback. Publisher: Myrmidon Books 2012; Length: 350 pages; Setting: Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. Source: Library copy. Finished reading on the 30th September 2012.

About the writer: I read Tan’s The Gift of Rain just a 3 months before I started blogging in 2008, so this is the first time I am introducing him in my blog. Tan Twan Eng was born in Penang, Malaysia. He divides his time between Kuala Lumpur and Cape Town. Tan worked as an intellectual property lawyer before becoming a full-time writer. He has a first-dan ranking in Japanese martial art aikido. His first novel, The Gift of Rain, was published in 2007 and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize that year. It is set in Penang in the years before and during the Japanese occupation of Malaya in World War II. The Gift of Rain has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Greek, Romanian, Czech, Serbian and French. His second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, was published in 2012. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012.  

Further discussion points available at Man Booker Prize website:

  • Memory is one of the main themes of The Garden of Evening Mists, how does Tan Twan Eng use the garden as a metaphor for memory?
  • Tan Twan Eng said The Garden of Evening Mists was a difficult novel to write ‘because Yun Ling very much wanted to keep her secrets to herself. Because of what she had gone through, and what she had become, no one was allowed into her head. And yet at the same time she wanted to – she had to – reveal those secrets. It was a constant battle for me to crack her open.’ Do you get the sense that Yun Ling is a reluctant narrator?
  • Does Yun Ling’s disposition towards Aritomo and towards the Japanese in general undergo a significant shift in the course of the novel, or does she rather maintain a constant though compartmentalised attitude throughout?
  • How and to what extent has Yun Ling’s capacity for intimate love and affection in later life been affected by her experiences in the internment camp and or her shared time with Aritomo?
  • Although containing many violent scenes readers have commented that they found the story comforting, leaving a feeling of calm and tranquillity. What feelings are you left with having completed the novel?

See also: My review of Tan Twan Eng’s A Gift of Rain


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


24 thoughts on “The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

  1. I’m half way through this book so haven’t read all your review. I’m having mixed feelings at the moment so am really pleased to see that you have given it 4.5 stars. Hopefully I’ll fall in love with it by the end.

    Posted by farmlanebooks | October 9, 2012, 5:42 pm
    • Jackie,
      I was half asleep reading through the pages in the middle. It gets better towards the end. But I must say it take a certain calm and unhurried mindset to read this one. I think people who are used to quick plot and action, may find this a tad boring.

      All the very best!

      Posted by JoV | October 9, 2012, 7:30 pm
  2. Gosh, what a wonderful review, and such beautiful photographs too. I am very tempted to give this one ago although it did not immediately draw me – but if “a feeling of calm and tranqulity” awaits me at the end of the book that more or less settles it! You suggest that Tan is a better writer than Ishiguro – well that’s saying something. Ish is one of my all time favourite authors.

    I am finding it very difficult to cope with wordpress.com ‘s commenting system. I don’t seem able to use name, email, website any more. This affects all the wordpress.com book blogs. Grrrr, it used to be so easy.

    Posted by www.acommonreader.org.uk | October 9, 2012, 6:39 pm
    • Tom,
      Thanks. I was very impressed with Ishiguro’s The Remain of the day. It was just simply brilliant. I wouldn’t say the same for his other books though but they do give you a feel of calm and tranquility.

      You can commend with your name, email, website, but you have to log into wordpress first. Leave wordpress logged in and then read the wordpress book blog and commend in the same open browser. Give it a go see if it works.

      Posted by JoV | October 9, 2012, 7:32 pm
  3. Out of all the books on the shortlist this year, this is the one that I actually want to pick up and read, so I was interested to see your review. I am a bit worried that the cultural references might be too much for me, as I won’t be going into the read with as much prior knowledge as you.

    Posted by Sam (Tiny Library) | October 9, 2012, 7:36 pm
  4. Sam,
    Sometimes it can be for the best. That way everything you read in the book will be new to you. Don’t let this put you off. Do give it a go, let me know how you get on!

    Posted by JoV | October 9, 2012, 7:49 pm
  5. I don’t remember ever reading a book set in Malaysia before. If I did I’d forgotten. Most Asian writers write of the immigrant experience. I crave for something written by them that aren’t. I know how you feel about cheering on a book that’s personally and geographically connected to you.

    Posted by claire | October 10, 2012, 5:59 am
    • Claire,
      It’s nice to read about local experience without falling on the well trodden path of immigrant experience. I am partial on this of course but I look forward to hear of other views which are not connected to this geographically! All the best.

      Posted by JoV | October 10, 2012, 9:13 am
  6. Oh I am so looking forward to reading this (currently am hold number 2! Soon!). It would be quite something if he won the Booker, wouldn’t it?

    Posted by olduvai | October 10, 2012, 3:51 pm
    • Olduvai,
      It would be quite something really but somehow I still feel the win would be remote (judging from what comes out from the previous years’ prize winners style). Still there is no harm in hoping right?

      Posted by JoV | October 11, 2012, 10:21 am
  7. Why wouldn’t this book have a good chance of winning the Booker this year? The other books are also a bit… different. I’ve not read one of them yet, because most of the others don’t appeal to me. I’ve only read positive things about The Garden of Evening Mists though and the cultural background of the protagonist also calls out to me. I’m glad to hear that, despite the lull in the middle of the book, the story did pick up again.

    Posted by Chinoiseries | October 10, 2012, 6:19 pm
  8. I like the sound of this, and those photos are just stunning. Make me want to move to the Cameron Highlands, never mind read about them!

    Posted by Andrew Blackman | October 12, 2012, 1:41 am
  9. great review I loved this book as well and some lovely pictures ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | October 16, 2012, 4:35 pm
  10. I’ve enjoyed your review of this book. I’ve just placed a link to it on my sidebar. Keep it up!

    Posted by Janet Williams | October 20, 2012, 12:56 pm
    • Thanks Janet. Tan’s book made me feel like going back and live in Cameron Highlands for awhile! 😉

      It is a shame he didn’t win. Many bloggers here in the community was hoping he would.

      Posted by JoV | October 20, 2012, 1:01 pm
  11. I’ve started this book mainly because it’s an Asian writer being shortlisted for the Booker Prize… and of course by now we know Tan didn’t win. Anyway, about the book, I must admit I have trouble staying focused on it. I might need to lay it aside to finish some other ones first. Thanks for a thorough and detailed review (I didn’t read all of it in case there’s spoiler) I like your photos. Is that house really in Cameron Highlands, Malasia?

    Posted by Arti | October 20, 2012, 9:24 pm
    • Arti,
      Yes it is in Malaysia. The smokehouse is famous. Most houses up there in the Cameron highlands are built by our ex-colonial master in mock tudor style. Some hotels are built that way too. Do google it up! Thanks for stopping by Arti. Appreciate it.

      Posted by JoV | October 20, 2012, 9:34 pm
  12. Spoiler!:
    My wife and I actually got into a heated discussion of the meaning of the linkup of the garden and the hiromono. Is the garden itself a Golden Lily site? Or is it a map to all the Golden Lily sites? Or both? She also thought that the narrator was degraded by the hiromono, while I maintained that she felt herself to be the vessel of an artistic statement, and that the tattooing helped bond the two main characters.

    Posted by Richard | October 30, 2012, 6:15 pm
    • Richard,
      I would like to think the narrator is the vessel of an artistic statement. Seeing it any other way would be a major letdown of the reading experience. I will go with your latter interpretation!

      Posted by JoV | November 5, 2012, 10:49 pm
  13. This is next on my reading list so I am just going through blogs to see what I am in for. I just realized reading your blog post that I haven’t read any book based in Malaysia before. For some reason, I thought it was predominantly Islamic country. Anyway, I can’t wait to read this book and educate myself further. All the culture bits sound super-interesting to me 🙂

    Posted by Nish | July 3, 2013, 11:29 am
    • Nish,
      Malaysia is predominantly a muslim country but there is also Chinese and Indians too. It is multi-cultural. Tan is well versed in the Japanese culture, therefore he writes about that.

      I look forward to hear about what you think about the book!

      Posted by JoV | July 3, 2013, 12:41 pm


  1. Pingback: August – Sept 2012 : Wrap-up « JoV's Book Pyramid - October 12, 2012

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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