Soothing tale of brutality and woe

This extraordinary book is set in the Malaysia of the 1980s.Yun Ling Teoh is a newly retired Supreme Court judge who returns to the estate and Japanese garden she helped to create many years earlier.

Wednesday, 9th September 2020, 4:45 pm
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twang Eng

Yun Ling has left the bench, it turns out, because her memory is starting to fail.

So, over the course of the book, she takes her last opportunity to record the events of her remarkable life while she can still remember them.

During World War Two, she was imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp and was its sole survivor – hundreds of others, including her own sister, lost their lives – and these events have haunted her ever since.

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Anna Caig

Much of the book is spent reminiscing on the post-war period when she built the garden with a man called Aritomo, former gardener to the emperor of Japan.

This is interspersed with sections looking even further back as we untangle the events of this complex and fascinating life.

We learn what happened in the internment camp, about the Japanese occupation of Malaya, the myths, the reality, and where these two things might overlap.

The most extraordinary thing about this book, with hindsight, is how soothing it manages to be while describing events of such brutality and sadness.

It has an almost mesmerising quality – sometimes it is only as you close the cover and reflect on what you just read that you realise it was awful.

I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing?

The country of Malaya is so vividly realised here, as are the philosophy and the practicalities of Japanese gardening.

It’s an education that feels like a meditation.

What stuck with me most strongly, though, was its strangely amorphous – misty even – sense of hope.

That even the most deep-rooted hatred can be overcome and in the right circumstances our prejudices become insignificant.

But that also, in the end, it may just be that we’ll forget everything anyway.

It’s this melancholy mix of the heartening and the heartbreaking that makes this book so special.