The Garden of Evening Mists, By Tan Twan Eng

A rising star from Malaysia returns with an elegant and haunting novel of war, art and memory.

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The Independent Culture

Aritomo, the enigmatic former gardener to the Emperor of Japan who glides through Tan Twan Eng’s second novel, tells his female apprentice in the Cameron Highlands of early-1950s Malaya that “Every aspect of gardening is a form of deception”.

Just the same applies, you might argue, to the art of fiction, with its incomplete points-of-view and deceptive trompe d’oeil vistas. Tan’s story here is just as elegantly planted as his Man Booker-long listed debut The Gift of Rain, and even more tantalisingly evocative.

Suffused with a satisfying richness of colour and character, it still abounds in hidden passageways and occult corners. Mysteries and secrets persist. Tan dwells often on the borderline states, the in between areas, of Japanese art: the archer’s hiatus before the arrow speeds from the bow; the patch of skin that a master of the horimono tattoo will leave bare; or the “beautiful and sorrowful” moment “just as the last leaf is about to drop”.

As in The Gift of Rain, beauty and sorrow prove inseparable twins. Set mainly on the island of Penang (Tan’s birthplace) before, during and after the Japanese occupation, that book entwined the life of a lonely Anglo-Chinese youth with a cultivated Japanese officer who came to personify all his culture’s baffling alloy of exquisite refinement and grotesque violence. Tan, still piqued by that ambivalence, once more puts it centre-stage.

Our narrator here is Teoh Yun Ling, a Girton-educated retired judge in independent Malaysia, born in 1923 and brought up among the loyal colonial elite (“the King’s Chinese”) of Penang. After the Japanese invasion, she suffered almost-unspeakable hardship as a “Guest of the Emperor” in a remote jungle prison camp, where her beloved sister Yun Hong died.

Tan’s fictional garden moves between three levels, which never quite coincide. In the present – given the chronology, the late 1980s – Yun Ling writes her memoirs before the aphasic dementia that has begun to afflict her reduces language and memory to trackless jungle. In the early 1950s, as a rebellious young prosecutor furious that the British rulers of Malaya have done so little to help victims of Japanese war crimes, she fled to the highlands to learn garden design from the shape-shifting Aritomo. Somehow – and for what dark purpose? – the imperial gardener has returned to postwar Malaya to exercise his talent for the visual feints and ruses of shakkei – “borrowed scenery”.

Meanwhile, the “Communist Terrorists” – ethnic-Chinese guerrillas – harass the tea estates with bloody raids as the overstretched British forces prepare to lower the flag. And, at the end of these twisting paths, lurks the truth of the sisters’ wartime ordeal as slaves, and the reasons for Aritomo’s presence.

Tan writes with breath-catching poise and grace. That a novel of this linguistic refinement and searching intelligence should come from a tiny Newcastle imprint tells us a lot about the vulgarity of corporate publishing today. But that is exactly the kind of thought that Judge Teoh or Aritomo-sensei might harbour.

For Tan’s core themes include the treacherous lure of loveliness, and the pitfalls of aesthetic nostalgia.

Tan, as readers may surmise, cites Ishiguro as an influence. But for all its mission to “capture stillness on paper”, as Aritomo says of his second career as an ukiyo-e artist, The Garden of Evening Mists also offers action-packed, end-of-empire storytelling in the vein of Tan’s compatriot Tash Aw. His fictional garden cultivates formal harmony –but also undermines it. It unmasks sophisticated artistry as a partner of pain and lies. This duality invests the novel with a climate of doubt; a mood – as with Aritomo’s creation – of “tension and possibility”. Its beauty never comes to rest.