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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Garden of Evening Mists

Tan Twan Eng

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To purchase The Garden of Evening Mists

Title: The Garden of Evening Mists
Author: Tan Twan Eng
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012
Length: 332 pages
Availability: The Garden of Evening Mists - US
The Garden of Evening Mists - UK
The Garden of Evening Mists - Canada
The Garden of Evening Mists - India

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Our Assessment:

B : fine, sweeping novel that layers it on just a bit too thick

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 24/8/2012 Kapka Kassabova
The Independent A 28/4/2012 Boyd Tonkin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/9/2012 Dominique Browning
Publishers Weekly . 30/7/2012 .
TLS . 5/10/2012 Christina Petrie
The Washington Post . 5/10/2012 Carolyn See

  From the Reviews:
  • "This novel ticks many boxes: its themes are serious, its historic grounding solid, its structure careful, its old-fashioned ornamentalism respectable. The reason I found it impossible to love is the quality of the writing. There is no discernible personality in the dutiful, dull voice of Yun Ling, and non-events stalk us on every page" - Kapka Kassabova, The Guardian

  • "Tan writes with breath-catching poise and grace. That a novel of this linguistic refinement and searching intelligence should come from a tiny Newcastle imprint tells us a lot about the vulgarity of corporate publishing today." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "(A) strong, quiet novel (.....) (T)he novel culminates in a spellbinding ritual of inking" - Dominique Browning, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Eng's newest 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." - Publishers Weekly

  • "In The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan creates an imaginative meeting place of complex ideas - aesthetic, emotional and historical. At times it can seem that he is trying too hard to fuse this information into moments of insight and revelation. (...) The Garden of Evening Mists would make a sumptuous film, but in print its characters fade into the scenery." - Christina Petrie, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The Garden of Evening Mists, a finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, plumbs the basics of human nature as it asks how we can commit so many atrocities in a time of war and, at the same time, create compelling, transcendent works of art. The plot is fascinating and, of course, complex. (...) This novel uses fine art as its major theme and, in the process, becomes a work of fine art itself." - Carolyn See, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A central figure in The Garden of Evening Mists is Nakamura Aritomo, a Japanese artist who was once the Emperor's gardener, but moved to what was then still British Malaya (now Malaysia) in 1940. In Malaya he devoted himself to transforming his estate into a Japanese garden, called Yugiri -- 'Evening Mists' (and also the name of the firstborn son of Prince Genji in The Tale of Genji). It is an entirely artificial construct, carefully planned out and put together, which he spends years working on. As he explains, it is all about effect -- aesthetic and emotional:

The garden has to reach inside you. It should change your heart, sadden it, uplift it. It has to make you appreciate the impermanence of everything in life
       But, as Tan makes clear to the reader from the start by having a character remind the narrator:
Gardens like Yugiri's are deceptive. They're false. Everything here has been thought out and shaped and built. We're sitting in one of the most artificial places you can find.
       Of course, these characters find themselves -- or rather we readers find them -- in another of the other most artificial places possible: a novel. And with The Garden of Evening Mists Tan Twan Eng has doubled down on that by trying to construct a fiction-as-Japanese-garden, carefully placing the different pieces in building up something that shifts shape as one moves through it and only slowly reveals its many secrets, the final impression a very different one from the early ones. It's quite cleverly and artfully done, but in parts becomes far too obvious -- tacky rather than sublime -- and lacks the delicate Japanese touch; indeed, it feels like imitation rather than original, a foreigner's fumblings rather than the authentic version. But give Tan credit: that is also exactly how he presents the novel; indeed, that is its premise. (So in that sense The Garden of Evening Mists is almost entirely a success.)
       The novel is narrated by Teoh Yun Ling, and begins with her retiring from her position as judge in Kuala Lumpur. She has had a long and successful career, but steps down from the bench just two years before reaching retirement age -- and heads to Yugiri, where she had last been some thirty-five years earlier.
       As it turns out, she has a good reason for stepping down from the bench: she suffers a neurological disorder that will, probably inside of a year, render her unable to read or speak or understand language in any way. She is losing her mind -- but specifically that part of the mind that handles language.
       One of the first things she does back in Yugiri is agree to meet a Japanese historian, Yoshikawa Tatsuji, who wishes to speak with Yun Ling regarding Aritomo's art. She controls the estate and has turned away most of those interested in seeing anything Aritomo left behind, but she eventually gives Tatsuji permission to study Aritomo's ukiyo-e, and he remains in the area for several weeks.
       The defining event of Yun Ling's life was when, during the war, she and her sister were taken as prisoners of war by the Japanese. Taken to a secret camp, Yun Ling emerged as the only one to survive; despite her great efforts she was never able to find out where the camp was located and where her sister's remains were. It's only relatively late in her account that she reveals the details of what happened to her and the circumstances there, but the gist is clear from early on. Her insistence on wearing gloves to cover an obviously scarred hand are just part of that.
       After the war Yun Ling studied law and then practiced briefly, but she very quickly burned out, and in 1951 she comes to the Majuba Tea Estate, run by Magnus Pretorius; when she returns to the area decades later it is his nephew Frederik that is still running the place. The neighboring estate is Yugiri -- and when Yun Ling first comes there she wants to commission Aritomo to design a Japanese garden for her, recalling about her sister: "Yun Hong's love of gardens kept us alive when we were in the camp". Aritomo declines the commission, but allows Yun Ling to apprentice with him, learning at least some of the art and craft, so that she might build her own garden. (She never does, of course: this account is her Japanese garden.)
       The Malaya of the times is still under a state of emergency, with 'CTs' -- 'communist terrorists' -- waging guerilla war throughout the countryside, and Yun Ling finds herself in a dangerous area. Serene Yugiri is a striking contrast to the uncertainties of the jungle beyond (though also not entirely a safe-house). Tan uses these circumstances, and the complex relationship of 'foreigners' -- Yun Ling's ethnic background is Chinese, even as she was completely Anglicized by her father, Magnus is a Boer who was a prisoner of the British, and Aritomo is Japanese -- in a Malaya that is still under (British) colonial rule in presenting an interesting canvas of this time and place. (An aboriginal tribe also plays a small but significant role in her story; perhaps predictably, they are only the ones who can be considered complete innocents (even Yun Ling sentenced people to death as a judge and must be considered part of the system(s)); tellingly, too, she can not find the aboriginals again when she tries to.)
       The backgrounds and personal histories of a number of the characters are presented, as Tan slowly weaves his web. From Japanese wartime activity in Malaya -- including the legend of a vast treasure supposedly buried somewhere here -- to Aritomo's career and friends and mysterious end and the mystery of where Yun Ling and her sister were interned, the suggestions of a larger picture slowly come into focus, just as Yugiri slowly comes together as the garden Aritomo has in mind.
       More than three decades later Yugiri no longer looks quite like it did, but Yun Ling makes an effort to fix it up again. All of Aritomo's gardens in Japan have been destroyed or lost, so: "Yugiri is the only garden that still bears his imprint". Tatsuji, studying Aritomo's artwork, also tells Yun Ling about his own fascination with tattoos -- and that Aritomo practiced that art, too.
       It all comes together quite well and elegantly in the end, but there's an awful lot of padding along the way, as if Tan wanted to makes sure readers saw each last bit of his garden, and that detracts from the larger picture. In part, it's also because there are parts he doesn't really seem to know what to do with, such as the rest of Yun Ling's family (her mother and father are still alive, and mention of them occasionally pops up in the story) Tan also has some difficulty in dealing with more intimate relationships; arguably, the rather cold Yun Ling, as narrator, might be the root of that problem, but some of her own relationships (especially the changing one with Aritomo) belies that.
       Tan also defines Yun Ling throughout by her experience:
     "You are still there, in the camp," said Aritomo. "You have not made it out."
       But Tan's insistent insistence on presenting her like this doesn't always convince. And then there are those added layers, like Yun Ling's incipient aphasia .....
       All in all it makes for a somewhat frustrating and puzzling book -- fascinating, on some levels, but also too obviously artificial (a would-be Japanese garden, rather than the real thing (whose artificiality is so expert that it is readily accepted)). It is also a somewhat distracted narrative, beginning with the small jumps in time at the beginning of the novel: when he gets going, Tan presents a good story, but his abrupt transitions are irritating.
       The Garden of Evening Mists is over-full with material. There's a lot here that impresses -- including the grand design -- and much of this is simply good story-telling, but it also feels a bit clumsy, both in parts as well as as a whole.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 August 2012

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The Garden of Evening Mists: Reviews: Tan Twan Eng: Other books by Tan Twan Eng under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng was born in 1972.

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© 2012-2023 the complete review

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