Author Tan Twan Eng's second novel is The Garden of Evening Mists. With a delicate touch he tells the story of the soul survivor of a cruel Japanese work camp in Malaya in World War II. Now a retired judge and ailing, Yun Ling Teoh, returns to a tea plantation in northern Malaya where she spent some time after the war. Her experiences and those of her sister in the prisoner camp are revealed in the memoirs she decides to write before her ailment takes her mind, leaving her unable to remember anything, even her own name.
Her memories take her back not only to the camp, but also to the time after the war when she first came to this same plantation to work with Aritomo, the exiled gardener of the Emperor of Japan. She wished to create a special garden in the memory of her sister who died in the camp. Her sister greatly admired Japanese gardens. Yun Ling chose to come to this area where Aritomo had been creating his own remarkable garden called the Garden of Evening Mists.
The story behind Aritomo's coming to Malaya, the aftermath of the war for Malaya, its 12-year communist insugency, the secrets related to war activities of various characters, their emotions and allegiances, create multiple layers to the novel. Like mists, they give clarity and then shroud over with impressions of what did and what might have happened. Because Yun Ling is writing in the evening of her years, before the darkness of her failing mind falls completely, the garden and the book are well named. Even for her, the mists of memory clear and fade, revealing, these many years later, new discoveries and understandings.
A Japanese garden is deceptively simple. There is much that goes into its design, capturing and duplicating larger natural elements in a smaller space. Tan Twan Eng has done much the same with his book. Larger themes of promises, power, connection and survival play out within the unfolding of lives and times in this more remote area of the world.