Thoughts on Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists

The Garden of Evening Mists

As promised in my comments on Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain, I have now completed his The Garden of Evening Mists. How could I resist a story set in a Cameron Highlands tea plantation? As usual, this is not a formal review, just some observations. If, like me, you prefer to know little about a book before diving in, you might do best to leave this post until after you’ve had a go at it yourself. Yes, that is a recommendation – read it – for both story and art. This one is going to stick with me for a long time.

Now to the observations:

Overall, I enjoyed The Garden of Evening Mists much more than The Gift of Rain. Having read The Gift of Rain, my expectations were more in line with Mr. Eng’s work. I knew what I was getting into so I was more prepared to appreciate it and chose to read it when I was ready for it. The first half of the book is slow going but, in the second half, the layers build towards a complexity which begins to pay off.

Language – Mr. Eng’s use of poetic speech is so dense that it sometimes overwhelms the writing. These are from the first page:

  • He had left his home on the rim of the sunrise..
  • …that rain-scratched morning…
  • Memories…like shards of ice fracturing off an arctic shelf. In sleep, these broken floes drift towards the morning light of remembrance.
  • The murmurings of the house…

Most of Mr. Eng’s figurative language is stunning and seamless. It supports the dream-like atmosphere, the story of muddled memories and the gradual revelations as truth emerges. There is the occasional clunker that feels forced, drawing attention to the language rather than keeping you in the story world. But if you want to see how metaphorical writing is done, how to steep your reader’s entire sensory system into another world, I highly recommend studying Mr. Eng’s work.

Structure – The story is framed in 1st person present tense narration over a two-week period, but the bulk of the book is in 1st person past tense as the narrator reveals prior events in her life. In fact, there are three major time periods in the book: the narrator’s experience during WWII, her experiences after the war as she met and worked with her Japanese gardener/mentor, and the present as she copes with her new circumstances – all the while discovering new information about her past.

The change of tense is helpful to keep the present and past time periods separated, but I still found it challenging to know which period I was in because the locations and characters overlap. I often had to stop and remind myself of what period I was reading in order to keep things straight in my head.

There are stories within stories which add to the mystery but also contribute to the complexity of the text. By the end of the book the story is so layered I had to stop many times and think about what each new piece of information meant to the narrative; how it fit into the larger story. Every bit is important and comes together in the end but I now feel the need to go back to the beginning and at least skim through the book again in order to fully appreciate each part of the puzzle – the way you might want to re-watch a mystery movie to make sense of how each clue plays a part in the whole.

Story – I found The Garden of Evening Mists more palatable than The Gift of Rain on several levels:

  • Personal interest: Japanese gardens, archery, art & tea are much more appealing to me as a context than Japanese martial arts. I also enjoyed the smattering of Malaysian language throughout the text since I have retained at least that much of my Bahasa Indonesia reading skills. Since I know the words, I didn’t need the context or the clarifications provided by Mr. Eng but I doubt anyone would be confused by them. He also scatters some Dutch vocabulary throughout – and I don’t know a word of it but had no problem making sense of them in context. I think this book would be a good example of how non-English words can flavor a text without confusing or irritating the reader.
  • Characters: I still long for a story from the ethnic Malay experience, but this book felt more rooted in the land than The Gift of Rain. However, that book’s main character was half Straits Chinese and half English and, I believe, a large part of his vulnerability to the Japanese mentor was his own rootlessness. I had a difficult time being sympathetic to the main character in The Gift of Rain because I found his manipulative Japanese mentor repulsive. In The Garden of Evening Mists, I found all of the characters interesting and sympathetic even when I was led to conclude they were not all perfectly honorable.

Similarities to The Gift of Rain Both stories revolve around an enigmatic Japanese master of something (martial arts, gardening, art) and their devastating allure to a young, vulnerable Malaya national within the context or fallout of the brutal Japanese invasion of Malaya during WWII. I can’t help but wonder what it is that draws Mr. Eng to elevate Japanese culture to this level of mystique within the hearts of the very people who were so abused by the Japanese atrocities. He seems fixated on the irony that the same culture, same individuals even, could produce such beauty while also committing such horrors on their fellow man.

But maybe that’s the point. What culture is not capable of great beauty and great savagery?

You can see reviews of The Garden of Evening Mist here and here.

Why I don’t write starred reviews here.

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