“On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the emperor of Japan. Not many people would have known of him before the war, but I did. He had left his home on the rim of the sunrise to come to the central highlands of Malaya. I was seventeen years old when my sister first told me about him. A decade would pass before I travelled up to the mountains to see him.
He did not apologize for what his countrymen had done to my sister and me. Not on that rain-scratched morning, when we first met, nor at any other time. What words could have healed my pain, returned my sister to me? None. And he understood that. Not many people did.”
Judge Teoh Yun Ling has retired from the Kuala Lumpur Supreme Court and is returning to Cameron Highlands for some unfinished business. Yun Ling is haunted by her past, the only survivor of a unknown Japanese internment camp in the jungle, her older sister Yun Hong among the dead. And troubled by her future, faced with the terrifying prognosis of aphasia which will take her memory and her language. So she begins to tell her story.
After the war was over, Yun Ling had hoped to create a Japanese garden in memory of her sister who loved such gardens, and travelled to Cameron Highlands to learn from Aritomo, the creator of the garden of evening mists and formerly the Japanese emperor’s gardener. He eventually accepts her as his apprentice and together they work on his garden and become more than friends.
“The high wall protecting the garden was patched in moss and old water stains. Ferns grew from the cracks. Set into the wall was a door. Nailed by the doorpost was a wooden plaque, a pair of Japanese ideograms burned into it. Below there words was the garden’s name in English: Evening Mists. I felt I was about to enter a place that existed only in the overlapping of air and water, light and time.”
This book, like Tan’s previous book The Gift of Rain, offers up a wonderful sense of place – from the communist terrors during the Malayan Emergency (a guerrilla war fought between the Commonwealth armed forces and the Malayan National Liberation Army, the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party, from 1948 to 1960) to the everyday occurrences like having breakfast in kopitiams (coffeehouses):
“The kopitiam was of the type found in every town and village, a place where old men in singlets and flappy cotton shorts spent their mornings chatting and drinking coffee from saucers. Felicitations in red Chinese calligraphy streaked down a large and unframed mirror on one wall. The marble tabletops were yellowing, stained with tidal layers of old coffee spills.”
There are some familiar themes that run through Tan’s books. An elite Japanese connection, in this case the Japanese Emperor’s former gardener and in The Gift of Rain (TGOR), a diplomat. A Japanese martial art – in TGOR it was aikido and in TGOEM it is archery or kyudo, which Aritomo teaches Yun Ling. The war stories – in TGOEM post-WWII Malaysia and the war against communism, in TGOR pre-WWII and the Japanese occupation of Malaya. And of course, the life, the culture, the people of Cameron Highlands, of Malaya feature in both books, in The Gift of Rain, it is Penang, in The Garden of Evening Mists, Cameron Highlands. However while The Gift of Rain had some moments that were just too dramatic and ventured into ideas of rebirth and fate that were just a bit too much for me, The Garden of Evening Mists seemed more grounded. Perhaps due to the narrator Teoh Yun Ling, a determined, assertive, scarred, wary woman:
“My name is Teoh Yun Ling. I was born in 1923 in Penang, an island on the northwest 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.”
This book brought my secondary school history texts to life. And this is something I’ve never been able to say before. So it was kind of fun for me to read about the Emergency and familiar names from the British in command like High Commissioners Gerald Templer and Henry Gurney (who was assassinated by the communists). Of course I am the kind of person who actually gets excited about things like history!
Of course if don’t feel that way, it doesn’t mean that this isn’t the book for you. It’s got great characters, gorgeous writing and a rarely written about, picturesque setting with a Japanese garden.