Book Review: “The Garden of Evening Mists” a Novel by Tan Twan Eng

I normally don’t read novels. But this book intrigued me when Amazon had a special Kindle deal on it. The story line sounded interesting as I was curious on Japan’s aggression in Malaysia and the book reviews were good. I was glad I bought the eBook and the audiobook version as a companion order. The book was narrated by the central character, Yun-Ling Teoh, an accomplished retired judge returning to her Yugiri garden after almost 34 years. From there she reminisces back 34 years how she met the master gardener, Aritomo. Then the stories got told from there about her and her sister being put in the concentration camp by their Japanese captors. The stories flashes back and forth that got confusing at times. But over all, it is a beautifully written book. My takeaways: (Spoiler alert: don’t read past this if you plan to read the book).

1. During World War II, Japan invaded Malaya and did atrocious damages to the Malaysians, like China. I wasn’t aware of the extent of it until reading this book.

2.CT (Communists) were like bandits living in the mountains, threatening the newly independence of Malaysia from its previously colonial master, Britain. The fact is that Malaysia was successful in driving the Communists down.

3. As a victim of the Japanese concentration camp and losing her sister to the Japanese captors, Yung Ling buried deep hatred against the Japanese. Just so happened, she turned into a gardening apprentices to Aritomo, the Emperor’s previous gardener, and later fell in love with Aritomo.

4. The audiobook was masterfully narrated – so many different voices mimicking the various male and female characters’ voices.

5.Hidden in the subplot is the purpose of the concentration camp the narrator is rounded up and imprisoned. Why has it not been documented? Of course, this leads to some doubt about why Aritomo lives in Yugiri Garden all these years. Could Aritomo be one of the “Golden Lily” operative sent there to protect the hidden, royal treasures, buried by the Configuration Team.

6. Aritomo’s final gift to Yun-Ling is the whole body tattoo on Yun-Ling’s back. It was a taboo at the time but gave Yun-Ling something to remember Aritomo all these years since Aritomo walked off from his Yugiri property and disappeared. What a contrast to her judicial career as the high court judge.

7. Frederic remained a friend to Yun-ling despite his admiration and love toward her. But friendship often lasts longer than romantic relationship.

8. There is a strong correlation of gardening and wood carving arts to tattooing in Japan. And they actually preserve the tattooed skin upon death for exhibits.

This is a fantastic novel. I really enjoyed the aubiobook version. If you want to learn a few things about Malaysia, Japan’s gardening and tattoo arts and its aggression during World War II, this is the book for you. Of course, the characters are interesting and mysterious, making you want to read through the book quickly to find out what really happened and if Aritomo is really part of the Golden Lily, which remains a mystery.