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The center of Tan Twan Eng’s deceptively seductive novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, turns on numerous unsettling events in Malaya during World War II and its aftermath. During the war, the Japanese set up interment camps in the country and incarcerated Chinese and Europeans of elite families. After the war, just as in China, the Communists attempted to seize the country which was still under British control. Independence for the Federation of Malaya was in 1957, though the state of Emergency—because of the attempted Communist take-over—didn’t end until 1960. Eng’s novel loops back before World War II and continues until almost forty years afterwards, focusing mostly on an area in Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands, where there were British settlers and Chinese elite families—because of the area’s tea cultivation—and, of course, indigenous Malayans.
Teoh Yun Ling, the novel’s main character and narrator, is still in her teens when she and her older sister, Yun Hong, and their mother are carted off by the Japanese to a labor camp somewhere in a jungle. Initially, they believe that they have been taken out of the country but later Teoh will realize the camp is in Malaya, perhaps even close to home. For a time, Teoh works along with others in what appears to be a mine—elaborate tunnels into the earth—even though it is unclear what is being mined. Later, she is given a position cooking for the occupants in the camp, where her sister (because of her good looks) was forced to become a comfort woman when they arrived. Their mother slipped into insanity shortly after their incarceration.
After three years, Teoh is the only prisoner to survive, though for theft two of her fingers were chopped off. In an incident she does not understand, she is driven several miles away from the camp by one of the Japanese officials and given her freedom, but she is so unsettled because she has been separated from her sister that she immediately claws her way back through the jungle, only to discover that the entire camp has been blown up after the prisoners were forced into the tunnels. Eventually, she is rescued by tribal people living in the jungle and taken to a main road where she is picked up by the driver of a truck, who takes her back to “civilization,” just as the war comes to a close.
Much of Teoh Yun Ling’s story is about her overwhelming guilt. She had promised her sister that if she had the opportunity to escape the camp she would take that chance. But she had also promised Yun Hong that she would build a “Japanese” garden and free her spirit from wherever she was buried. These concerns lead to Teoh’s obsession to honor her sister’s memory. Before the war, the two sisters had visited Japan and fallen in love with the stylized Japanese gardens. Also at that time, their family became acquainted with Nakamura Aritomo, once one of the Emperor’s gardeners, who later settled in Tanah Rata. His reasons for leaving Japan and the Emperor are unclear, but for these sisters the attraction is that Aritomo is building another garden at Yugiri, in Tanah Rata. At the labor camp, the sisters keep their sanity by focusing their memories on minute details of Japanese formal gardens.
After the war, Teoh becomes a famous jurist, but she retains her plan to build a garden in her sister’s memory. That’s the problem. Why a Japanese garden given what happened to her family during the war? Why does she go to Nakamura Aritomo (certainly a bit of a mystery man) and request his help, given his connections to the Emperor? Why does she become sexually involved with Aritomo, who always appears to keep a distance from her? Why does Aritomo Nakamura one day simply disappear, walk into the jungle and vanish? Most disturbing of all: What was Aritomo’s connection to the Japanese forces occupying Malaya?
I’ve circled around much of the story, identifying the surface realities of Tan Twan Eng’s enchanting novel, short-listed for this year’s Man Booker Award. There are mysteries to be uncovered here, elegantly woven into a story of great beauty and formality, whether they are the Japanese gardens (the Art of Setting Stones and the Deception of Borrowed Scenery) or the equally detailed references to tea ceremonies and, to a lesser extent, tea cultivation. Even tattooing, as it relates to ritual, class, and artistry becomes important as Aritomo’s secret past slowly unfolds for Teoh Yun Ling (as well as the reader). The Garden of Evening Mists levitates above the surface reality of war and its terrible atrocities and floats, hauntingly, like a Japanese lantern up into the sky.
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.