The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

When I searched for books suitable for a gardening book club, this book popped up and I was intrigued. Set in Malaya and narrated by Judge Teoh who has resigned from the courts, it explores the relationship between Teoh and the gardener to the Emperor, Aritomo, who lived up a mountain near the tea estate of Majuba.

Aritomo is a self-exiled Japanese gardener who, it is said, argued with the Emperor and left, buying a patch of land in Malaya and setting out to create a garden according to Japanese gardening principles. Teoh escaped from a Japanese war camp as the war finished and eventually made her way to Kuala Lumpa. In the camp, her sister died and Teoh felt that she had to build the garden that they had talked about and described at nights to take their minds away from the atrocities at the camp. This led her to Aritomo and her request of him to create a garden for her sister.

Aritomo turned her down but took her on as an apprentice in the garden, then they became lovers and finally he created a tattoo or horimono over her back and then disappeared, never to be seen again. Throughout his time, Aritomo was the centre of swirling rumours about the fact that he was a Japanese spy, that he paid the communists to stay away and leave them alone amongst other things.

A big part of the book is about memory and forgetting as Teoh has an illness, Aphasia, where she can’t make sense of words and where she is. Smells and sights trigger memories and she records them so that they won’t be forgotten as she will inevitably do. There is also a statue in the garden to Mnemosyne, representing memory. People who visit the garden are often triggered to remember and tell things from their past during the war that they regret, making the characters that seem so morally upright a little more flexible, bending with the wind when necessary.

The history of the time is woven into the story without being a lecture and I learned a lot about Japan’s invasion and about the continuing struggles in Malaya/Malaysia after the war had finished. However, I can’t really help but feel that nothing happens in the story and it takes quite a long time to get to the point at the end of the book which involves treasure and a map. It is a book set in a garden but not really about a garden.

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