As the second woman to be elected to Malaysia’s Supreme Court, Yun Ling Teoh is no ordinary judge. Yet, in 1987, she takes an early retirement without explanation. During her supervisor’s speech at her retirement ceremony, we discover key details of her life: that she was educated at Cambridge, that she helped prosecute war criminals and that she spent three years in a Japanese wartime hard labor camp.
And yet, while the Chief Justice elaborates on the highlights of her career, Yun Ling’s thoughts drift in and out of the scene. Because we are inside her head, there are parts that we miss. We start to wonder why author Tan Twan Eng chooses to leave out these aspects rather than allowing her supervisor to tell us about her life. Not long after the ceremony, we find out that Yun Ling has been diagnosed recently with aphasia and that, within a year, she will lose her memory. We begin to read the silences in the narrative, hearing what’s said and then asking what’s not said.
It’s a characteristic move for Eng’s award-winning novel “The Garden of Evening Mists,” which fluctuates beautifully between the twin difficulties of memory and forgetting. Eng’s novel asks us to reconsider a traumatic past from several distinct but related angles: What deserves to be recorded, and who deserves to be remembered? How can we live with our memories, since forgetting is not an option? And what is the best way to honor the memory of those we have loved and lost?
The novel begins in the late 1980s in Malaysia, when (just after her retirement) Yun Ling begins to record her story of being apprenticed to a master Japanese gardener, Nakamura Aritomo, in the 1950s. Somewhat against her will — and ironically — she had agreed to learn the principles of Japanese garden design and Zen arts in order to honor her dead sister who had loved Japanese gardens. Yun Ling has just agreed to meet with Yoshikawa Tatsuji, a Japanese historian who is interested in Yugiri, the eponymous “garden of evening mists” designed by Aritomo. Eng is particularly skillful in his treatment of Yun Ling’s memories of her imprisonment; these surface initially in small details (Yun Ling refusing to obey an order) and eventually climax in a longer flashback. Yun Ling, we discover, is the sole survivor of the hard labor camp where she and her sister were imprisoned. Together, Yun Ling and Tatsuji learn how to share the psychological and physical repercussions of their wartime pasts with each other.
The novel’s main action alternates between the “present” of the late 1980s and the 1950s, and eventually moves even further back to Yun Ling’s imprisonment during World War II. Readers unfamiliar with the Malayan Emergency may find the first part of the novel difficult to follow. Becoming familiar with even an outline of Malaya and Malaysian history will help to ground the reader among the multiple chronological shifts. However, the novel emphasizes the growing relationship between Yun Ling and her teacher Aritomo as something of an escape from difficult histories.
Some readers of this publication may be somewhat disconcerted by the frequent — if historically accurate — use of the word “Jap.” Nevertheless, persistent readers will also be rewarded by the well-rounded development of several of the novel’s Japanese main characters: Aritomo, the gardener, and Tatsuji, the historian and a former kamikaze pilot. “Garden” is, thus, a novel which refuses to villainize Japanese people completely, but also doesn’t shy away from Japanese wartime horrors such as hard labor camps, the Nanking Massacre, and the legendary “Golden Lily” program.
Overall, though, the satisfying ending of Eng’s novel will echo in readers’ minds for a long time, perhaps as a final way to underscore the hard-won triumph of memory.