Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals up the gap and the world is in shadows again.
The Garden of Evening Mists is structured in the form of a memoir, written by Teoh Yung Lin following a diagnosis of aphrasia. She knows she will eventually lose her capability for language and wishes to record her memories while she still can.
Its is an eventful life. Forced into a Japanese slave labour camp at the age of 17, she becomes the sole survivor. Her sister, a lover of Japanese gardens, is not so fortunate. Yung Lin, therefore, decides to put aside her hatred of the Japanese and apprentice herself to Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the Emperor, in order to learn the principles of Japanese garden design. Her ambition is to build a memorial garden for her lost sister.
Her apprenticeship brings her to Yuguri, the garden of evening mists, a place that becomes her refuge at different stages of her life. These overlaps in time leak into the narrative, which is not told chronologically and, therefore, demands attention. Yung Ling’s memories flit from time to time, resting on and examining key moments before moving onto the next. The unexpected outcome of this is the revelation of hidden connections and, contrary to the quote above, the light of truth begins to shine on exactly what happened in the camp so many years previously.
In a sense this is a historical novel, full of the brutal realities of life in Malaysia in the mid 20th century: the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, associated war crimes, the post-war communist insurgency. Yung Lin’s incarceration at the hands of the Japanese is of necessity the defining moment of her life – show me a Guest of the Emperor who ever recovered, she says at one point. Yet the full detail of her experience is revealed only towards the end of the novel when we know that she has not been entirely destroyed by it. The effect of this is that crimes of the past do not dictate the tone of the whole.
The focus on the garden, the spiritual meanings of its features, and the relationship that develops between Yung Ling and Aritomo, despite the wounds of the past, emphasise themes of atonement and reconciliation. Coupled with the exquisite writing, this novel reestablishes a degree of harmony in a world that at times loses all sense of such.