The Garden of Evening Mists is a deceptively simple story of one woman’s life after surviving a secret Japanese prison labor camp during WWII that quickly develops thematic layers for the reader to slowly peel back. There is unconventional love as well as complications of patriotism as played out during the Occupation of Malaysian by Japanese, Maoists and even the aboriginal Orang Asli, all of whom threatened the lives of the Malaysian civilians.
Of course, the art of Japanese gardening itself is key to the book, specifically garden design based on Sakuteiki, a mid- to late-11th century book that teaches, among other things, how to use hidden aspects of a garden element to highlight something external; for instance, bending down to drink from a fountain and getting a glimpse of the sea beyond. This idea of something being hidden fits the characters as well. No one in The Garden of Evening Mists is a simple stereotype, and this is one of Tan Twan Eng’s greatest strengths. He is able to portray the complexity of our universal humanity, showing the inconsistencies that make us who we are, the choices that shape us and especially how they shape our subsequent choices. His words remind me of the imposition of the cultivated Japanese garden onto the natural rainforest complexity because with simplicity, he builds emotions of love (filial, shared or unrequited), war, guilt, betrayal and survival which are basic and yet never truly simple.
It’s easy to see why The Garden of Evening Mists was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize because it stays very reader-friendly even as it creates multiple, sometimes complex, story lines and timelines for us to follow. If you like this novel, be sure to check out Tan Twan Eng’s earlier work, The Gift of Rain.
Ed. note: this post was written by a member of Chatham Community Library. If you’d like to write a review, check out our guidelines.