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Tan Twan Eng: The Garden of Evening Mists

Judge Teoh – it is only when we are quite a few pages into the book do we learn that Judge Teoh is called Teoh Yun Ling and is a woman – is retiring after a successful career on the bench of the Malaysian Supreme Court. Much of the book consists of her reminiscences of her life. The book is about reminiscences but, as the epigraph tells us, it is also about forgetting. Judge Teoh is suffering from a form of aphasia and is forgetting things. However, there is also another key aspect to forgetting in this book. Three conflicts are key to this story. Judge Teoh was the only survivor of a Japanese internment camp, when the Japanese occupied Malaya during the war. Her sister, a promising artist, was one of the victims who died. Judge Teoh lost two fingers, though, initially, we do not know how or why. She is understandably very bitter towards the Japanese. Her father had been a rubber planter and had worked closely with a South African immigrant, Magnus Pretorius. They had later fallen out, though Judge Teoh remained on good items with him and then his nephew, Frederik, with whom she had an affair. Magnus had fought in the Boer War and been captured and sent as a prisoner of war in Ceylon. He still felt very bitter towards the British. Finally during the period when Judge Teoh was staying on Magnus Pretorius’ tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands, the Malayan Emergency was in full force and the CTs (= Communist terrorists), as they were known, were carrying out attacks and assassinations throughout the area.

After the war, Judge Teoh had worked as a research clerk on the War Crimes Tribunal. However, when the Allies waived all reparations claims by the Japanese, as the Japanese could not afford to pay them, she lost interest in her work, was rude and critical and was fired. She then spent some time with Magnus Pretorius (where she met Frederik), who was running a successful tea plantation. It is there that she met his neighbour, Nakamura Aritomo. He had been the gardener of Emperor Hirohito but had left to come and live in Malaya just before the war. As a Japanese national, he was protected during the war and helped a lot of the locals, British and Malay. Though he was arrested and beaten up by the British, he was not charged and continued to stay in Malaya. He had become a famous garden designer, but also a famous ukiyo-e artist and, as we soon learn, also a famous tattoo artist. Judge Teoh goes to see him to ask him to design a garden in memory of her sister, feeling that he has some sort of moral obligation because of the way he and her sister were treated by his fellow-countrymen. He declines, saying that he is too busy, but later offers to train her so that she can build it. She reluctantly agrees and takes a six month apprenticeship with him. By this time, however, we know from the story of her post-retirement life that she has inherited his estate and his art works.

There are various plot twists. Is Aritomo really who he says he is? What happened to him? (We know that he just disappeared one day and was never seen again.) What happened to Judge Teoh’s fingers and how was it was that she and she alone who survived the camp? Where was the camp? (There seems to be no trace or record of it and Judge Teoh has spent some time looking for it, without success.) Did the Japanese, as several people seem to believe, leave gold buried in the hills and, if so, where? Tan’s great skill is not only to leave us guessing about the plot but to tell a superb story, with strong characters against a wonderfully evocative background, the Cameron Highlands and, specifically, Aritomo’s Japanese garden. At the same time, he makes his point about forgetting – forgetting both because the mind fades but also our refusal to forget what we consider a great wrong done to us. Should Magnus forgive the British and Judge Teoh the Japanese? Both, of course, have close relationships with people who they once considered sworn enemies. Judge Teoh and some of the other characters are ultimately looking to find inner peace and that is never easy. We can see the very strong connection between this book and Tan’s previous book – the ‘good’ Japanese, remembering and forgetting, a never-married hero/heroine, the legacy of the war, both the conflicts and positive relationships between the different ethnic groups and the uneasy role of the British in Malaya. There is no doubt in my mind that this one is the superior book, though both are very fine novels.

Publishing history

First published 2011 by Myrmidon