Book Review: The Garden of Evening Mists

Started: Hangzhou, China
Finished: Guilin, China

Hey, Cal!

Aye, whit?

Go an’ name me a few of your most favourite things.

What is this? The Sound of Music?

Just do it, eh?

I guess… military history… Japan… nature… and tattoos. Why?

Because, mi amigo, I have just the book for you…

Not that this dialogue actually took place – except perhaps in my lonely traveller head – but it might as well have done, because The Garden of Evening Mists by Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng pressed all my buttons.

Set in Malaysia during (I believe) the 1960’s – a period of revolutionary turmoil for the country – though with flashbacks to the years before and during WWII, Tan Twan Eng weaves together stories of characters rich in colour and depth – stories which could very easily (and at times do) stand alone, and be a brilliant read, and yet which, when brought together, reveal like a completed Horimono tattoo a million and one secrets within a plot so well-crafted it’s hard to force yourself to read it in order; to stop yourself from jumping hungrily ahead.

Particularly impressive, being Tan Twan a male author, is the strength of his female characters: Yun Ling, the independent and strong-willed POW survivor, judge, and protagonist; and Emily, personally one of my favourite characters for her story-telling and wisdom, who persits always, even in the face of the murderous ‘Malayan Emergency’ years.

Though given the confidence with which the author writes each and every one of his characters, I guess the above is no surprise. Though Yun Ling is first-person protagonist, we hear also from a variety of other perspectives. Every time this is the case, new light is shed on the overarching themes of war and love (familial and romantic), and with each new perspective, our perceptions and biases are challenged.

As an historian, I find the latter hugely refreshing. With much of The Garden of Evening Mists having to do with the Japanese involvement in World War II, and with a bloody communist revolution in Malaysia, it is important to me that we can be forced not only to learn of, but to empathise with antagonistic beliefs and narratives surrounding these events. Thus we can begin to appreciate why atrocities are perpetrated, or indeed how the people behind them might, in any other setting, be regarded as actually quite good people.

For example, one of my and my pal Luke’s (who I gave the book to once I’d finished it) favourite parts was the short story-esque reminiscings of Tatsuji the scholar. Once a kamikaze pilot destined for military suicide, Tatsuji’s life was spared by the actions of his commanding officer, disillusioned with Japan’s casual disposal of human life. To read of clear and open dissension within Japanese ranks, and to read of Tatsuji’s father’s (designer of the kamikaze planes) regret at having built such machines, was to have my understanding of Japan and its honour code altered entirely.

The Garden of Evening Mists is wonderfully unique in its content, providing well-researched and (I must stress) fascinating insights into the history and culture of Asian arts: tattooing, gardening, warfare; all the while moving the story along at a sound pace. There is drama aplenty, (war)crimes to be solved, puzzles to be pieced; there are moments of poetic beauty, moments of heart-wrenching tenderness, and moments of sheer terror.

I could barely put this book down; it has that very rare quality of being able to educate and expand understanding without the reader even realising what’s happening, so engrossed are they.

I would recommend this to any fan of good fiction.

I can think of only one fault. Tan Twan’s ending is exquisitely written, but leaves you hungry. Whereas he could have written some pure shite happy-go-lucky ending and given us all what we wanted. It’s like he didn’t get the memo that in our instantaneous, consumer-driven culture, scruffy, monosyllabic hedonists wanting a quick fix are the kids who rule the day, and not intelligent, thoughtful, introspective humans – as would better appreciate such writing.

Of course you see I’ve went for that classic: phrase-it-as-a-negative-when-it’s-actually-a-positive gag.

In fact I found zero faults with this book. As the old saying goes: read it and weep.

C x

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