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.