Tan Twan Eng's Man Booker-shortlisted novel comes five years after his debut, The Gift Of Rain, which made it as far as the long-listing of the same prize and was also published by the same small press.
His publishers have given it a second publication date to help it catch up on those reviews it missed first time round, and who can blame them? Dense as an exotic garden and dripping with barely suppressed rage, yet elegant and cool when it needs to be, this is a fine and unusual read.
Much of it is told in flashback. Judge Yun Ling Teoh is retiring from her position on the bench, where she has spent much of her career as a prosecutor, because she has a degenerative brain disease. She returns to her home, Yugiri, a garden created by the Japanese Emperor's own gardener, Aritomo. But this garden is not in Japan; it is in the hills of Kuala Lumpur in Malaya (now Malaysia), in an area known as Cameron's Highlands. A former lover, Frederick, the nephew of her South African-Boer friend Magnus, is still there and he welcomes her back. But a history professor, Yoshikawa Tasuji, wants to do a book about the gardener's prints and Yun Ling must decide what help she is to give him. Frederick, meanwhile, wants her to concentrate on finding a cure.
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Aritomo himself has long been presumed dead, having disappeared into the jungle many years previously and never returned. Much, but not all, of this information is conveyed within the first 50 pages or so – Twan Eng is not kind to his readers, is not leading them gently through the various characters that populate his pages, and assumes a knowledge of the Japan-China war that engulfed the states aligned with China too. Yun Ling has bodily evidence of that conflict – her writing hand is missing two fingers. They were brutally cut off by the commander of the slave labour concentration camp that she and her sister were taken to, when war broke out and Japan invaded Malaya. Her sister died in that camp, as did almost everyone else. Yun Ling was the sole survivor.
Why then would a survivor of a Japanese concentration camp ask a former gardener of the Japanese Emperor to create a Japanese garden for her? Yun Ling provides the answer quickly – she wants it to be a tribute to her sister, who adored Japanese gardens. And so the flashbacks begin, to the moment she asked Aritomo to create the garden, his initial refusal, then his insistence that she become his apprentice and learn how to create the garden she wants herself. Aritomo is a mysterious figure – he also practises the art of tattooing in secret, as it is considered taboo. Yun Ling looks back over those days in the aftermath of the end of the Second World War, when communist rebels were raiding the countryside and independence was being fought for.
The themes of Twan Eng's novel are memory and colonialism, a superficially neat connection which asks not only what do we remember, but what should we remember, and how? The truth is always messier, though. Yun Ling's friend Magnus is a veteran of the Boer uprisings against the British; the hills behind Kuala Lumpur bear the name of their British colonialist invaders. Interestingly, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are only mentioned in one line – this book, written by a Malaysian, has Yun Ling ask about Japanese reparation for the pain and suffering it caused other nations. She does not want to remember the pain and suffering any Japanese subsequently experienced.
In that sense, this is a weighted political novel, but that's where its passion comes from. Yun Ling is possibly too restrained at times, Aritomo too shadowy, but both have serious secrets to hide. In a violent world, perhaps restraint is the best we can manage; in a horribly compromised life, reparation is never quite enough, and is itself full of contradictions. Twan Eng's novel is a commendably grown-up tale that doesn't give easy concessions.
The Garden Of Evening Mists
Tan Twan Eng
Myrmidon Books, £18.99