Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-07-30
- Reviewer: Staff
After having endured the miseries of a Japanese internment camp during WWII, 28-year-old Yun Ling Teoh makes her way in 1951 to the only Japanese garden in her native Malaya in a bid to convince its caretaker, Nakamura Aritomo, the former gardener for the Emperor of Japan, to establish a commemorative plot for her sister who died in the camp. Though he initially refuses, Aritomo agrees to mentor Yun Ling so that she might design the garden herself. While toiling away in Yugiri, the titular "garden of evening mists," Yun Ling grows fond of Aritomo, meanwhile recalling the horrors of the camp and the difficulties of the post-WWII "Emergency" in Malaya, a prolonged period of guerrilla war whose reach creeps closer by the day. Alternating between her time with Aritomo and a future wherein the now-aged Yun Ling, fighting a degenerative brain disease, desperately seeks to preserve her memories of the garden, Eng's newest (after The Gift of Rain) has the makings of a moving and unique historical, but the novel falls flat. There is a puzzling lack of pathos, and Eng's similar treatment of the tragic and the mundane serves to downplay rather than highlight the differences between the two. As a result, there is very little—other than Eng's moving atmospherics and attention to detail—to draw readers along. (Aug.)
The garden of the post-war heart
Yun Ling Teoh is an angry woman—and she has every right to be. The daughter of a wealthy ethnic Chinese family in Malaya, she and her beloved sister were taken prisoners by the Japanese during World War II. The camp where they were taken was typically miserable, but so obscure that even in her old age Yun Ling can’t find out where it was or what it was called. Her bitterness toward the Japanese remains relentless and even invigorating; in her career as a prosecutor and then a judge she’s sent a goodly number of Japanese war criminals to their deaths.
But Tan Twan Eng, author of The Gift of Rain, lets us know from the beginning that nothing in this tetchy, straight-talking woman’s life is uncomplicated. Yun Ling’s sister Yun Hong had a passion for Japanese gardens that was kindled by a family visit to Kyoto. When Yun Ling escapes from the camp, she vows to make one for her, despite her hatred of the Japanese. To do this she must apprentice herself to Aritomo, a mysterious Japanese gardener who once worked for the Emperor whose troops had brutalized her and her sister for sport.
Eng brings the same pleasing level of messiness to his new novel as he did to The Gift of Rain. In both cases the messiness is the result of war, which not only brings horror to the protagonists, but upends the societies in which they live and forces them to examine old beliefs and ways of life that were taken for granted. Once again, Eng transports the reader to a world that few people know about and reveals the complicated humanity of its inhabitants.