Back in September I think it was, Grad told me I had to read The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. When someone tells me to read a book I don’t usually hurry off to get a copy, but Grad got me to read Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh so I decided to trust her on this one. She must have emailed a good many other people in Minneapolis to tell them to read it too because the book had a waiting list. Finally my turn came up and I am happy to say that Grad is two for two!
It is such a complex, intricate and beautiful book. The story takes place in the Cameron Highlands of Malaya during the Malayan Emergency. But the story is not about the Emergency though it is always in the background and sometimes breaks into the forefront. What the story is about is Yun Ling Teoh.
When the Japanese occupied Malaya during World War II, she and her sister were imprisoned in a work camp. Yun Ling and her family are Straits Chinese, ethnic Chinese from the British Straits Settlements of Malaya. Yun Ling’s sister was forced to serve as a comfort woman to the Japanese officers in the camp. Yun Ling, several years younger, was forced, first to work in digging what the prisoners thought was a mine. But Yun Ling was smart and resourceful. She made friends with the Dutch chaplain and asked him to teach her Japanese which then allowed her to serve as a translator for her Japanese captors and work in the camp kitchen where she could take food for herself and sneak some to her sister sometimes. When it was clear the Japanese were losing the war, the prison camp and all the Malayan prisoners were killed. All but Yun Ling who escaped with the help of a high ranking Japanese official. After the war, Yun Ling served on the government to help track down Japanese war criminals and those who aided them. In the process, she was also searching for the location of the camp she and her sister were at but no one had ever heard of it.
It is now 1951 and Yun Ling has gone to Majuba House in the Cameron Highlands. Her father’s friend Magnus owns Majuba House and the tea plantation surrounding it. He and his workers were protected during the war by Aritomo, owner of the nearby Yugiri, Garden of Evening Mists, and former gardener to the Emperor of Japan. Yun Ling has come for a rest — she still bears the psychic and emotional scars of her imprisonment and the physical scars of the two fingers that were cut off as a punishment. But she has also come to see Aritomo.
Yun Ling’s sister, Yun Hong, loved gardens, especially Japanese gardens and particularly admired the work of Aritomo, the Emperor’s gardener. While imprisoned, Yun Hong and Yun Ling kept themselves going by building themselves a beautiful garden in their imagination. They would discuss every detail and every plant. Now, Yun Ling has decided that she will ask Aritomo to design a Japanese garden in memory of her sister. Yun Ling has some property near their home in Kuala Lampur on which she plans to build it. When she visits Aritomo and asks if he will design the garden he says no. It was hard enough for her as a Chinese woman who spent years in a Japanese prison camp to ask a Japanese man to create a garden for her, but for the sake of her sister’s memory, she refuses to be defeated. When she returns the next day to ask Aritomo again, he tells her that he will not design a garden for her but he will take her on as his apprentice so she can learn how to do it herself.
So begins a journey of healing, of accepting truth and loss, of memory and forgetting, of letting go, and of finding friendship and love. It would have been so easy for Aritomo to be a mystic gardener who makes cryptic statements that lead to Yun Ling’s spiritual enlightenment. But this is not that kind of book. Aritomo is fully human. He too has prejudices and secrets and scars from the war. It is the garden and the work there that is the spiritual element of the book. Gardening is hard work and Aritomo is a gifted gardener. Working with growing things in order to create a place of breathtaking beauty and tranquility is bound to change anyone. No one can understand how this angry Chinese woman and the stand-offish Japanese gardener can become friends, but it is all there in the garden itself.
The story is told by an older Yun Ling. She has been away from Yugiri for 40 years and has worked as a judge. She has just retired and begins work to restore Aritomo’s garden. He left it to her when he died. Yun Ling retired, not because she wanted to stop working, but because she is suffering from primary progressive aphasia. Eventually she will lose her ability to speak and write and remember. At the moment she is only a little forgetful. Back at Yugiri, she begins writing about her life to guard against the day she will no longer be able to remember it herself.
The Cameron Highlands are peppered with natural caves, and toward the end of the book Yun Ling has finished writing her life and looks out into the dusk as bats start to fly out of the caves to hunt for food and she wonders,
Are all of us the same, […], navigating our lives by interpreting the silences between words spoken, analyzing the returning echoes of our memory in order to chart the terrain, in order to make sense of the world around us?
This is a book resounding with echoes. The writing is beautiful, measured. The tone is quiet. Reading the book is like walking slowly through a garden, pausing here and there to take in a view, bending in close to see the details of a particular flower, coming round a bend in the path and being surprised by what it reveals. And, like any good garden, there is so much more to it than what you see.