Review: The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

When Yun Ling Teoh retires from her career as an attorney and a judge, she returns to the Malaysian highlands, where she spent the years immediately following World War II.  Recently diagnosed with a degenerative memory disease, she wants to record her life’s memories before they disappear.

Yun Ling was the only survivor of a Japanese camp; her sister died there.  After the war, Yun Ling sought out Aritomo, former gardener to the Japanese emperor, to learn the art of Japanese gardening and create a garden in her sister’s memory.  Yun Ling is filled with anger at the Japanese, and overcome with guilt over her sister’s death. Her time with Aritomo becomes a time of healing and spiritual renewal.

As readers we live in Yun Ling’s mind, moving seamlessly between present and past.  So seamlessly, in fact, that occasionally I had to back up and re-read pages to ground myself in the correct time period.  In the present day, Yun Ling is visited by a man researching Aritomo’s life and work.  This storyline, combined with Yun Ling’s memories of Malaysia during and after the war, convey the brutality of this period in a very powerful and emotional way.  But this is not “just” a wartime story. The Garden of Evening Mists is also about beauty and love, and the ability of both to persist through the most horrific circumstances.

I had looked forward to reading this book after it was nominated for the 2012 Booker Prize, and received several rave reviews on LibraryThing.  I was expecting a 5-star read, which is probably unfair.  The writing was beautiful and poetic, but it wasn’t “unputdownable,” and I always felt at a slight distance from the characters and the plot.  Nevertheless, I recommend this book for those who like quiet, slow-paced, character-driven novels.

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14 thoughts on “Review: The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

  1. I LOVED this book (and gave it a rave review on LibraryThing) ;) But I didn’t think it was unputdownable either. It had quite a few slow parts, in fact. It took me almost two months to read it because I kept putting it down and reading other books. But I’m so glad I read it in the end.

      • Hype often does an injustice to books where I’m concerned. I’m much more likely to enjoy a book if I expect it to be “not bad” and it’s great. But if I expect it to be amazing and it’s just great…well, I’m disappointed. It’s not really fair, but I guess that’s the way it is.

  2. I agree that this wasn’t that gripping and I was a little disappointed as I read it, but once I’d finished my appreciation of it has grown. In fact 6 months on I like it far more than I did at the time. It is one of those books that grows on you.

    • That’s very interesting Jackie. I remember your disappointment. It is definitely a haunting book and still in my mind several days later, even though I’m reading something else. That’s the sign of something good.

  3. Is this fiction or nonfiction? It sounds really interesting. I know you don’t read a lot of newer fiction, but have you heard of The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet? It isn’t the same, but has similarities, in the way that the book goes back and forth between now and the past, and the prevalence of the internment camps.

  4. I’m still looking for my ‘wow’ unputdownable book for 2012…guess I’ll save this for next year. ;-)

  5. This is on my wish list having heard so many good reviews including those from many literary figures who argued it should have won the Booker prize.

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