The Garden of Evening Mists – Book Review

A few weeks ago, when @mummyratesit asked if anyone would like to join in a linky, reading the Man Booker Prize shortlisted novels I jumped at the chance. Now that I have a little reading time – to and from work on the tube – I like to have a decent book to immerse myself in.

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng is a historical fiction centering around the present existance and past memories of Judge Teoh Yun Ling. Having just retired from her work at the Supreme Court in Kuala Lumpur she returns to the central highlands and the garden called Yugiri (which means ‘Evening Mists’) which she originally helped to create alongside the exiled former gardener to the Japanese Emperor – Nakamura Arimoto – in memory of her sister, who died during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya which occurred between 1941 and 1949.

To begin with, the book was quite slow paced and it took me a little while to get into it. I’m not sure if this was aided or hindered by the fact that I generally only get to read in 15 minute instalments while travelling – but I think perhaps this fragmented reading style probably relieved some of the frustration that I might otherwise have experienced waiting for the story to go anywhere in the first 100 pages or so.

The chronological shift between the present day in the book (set in the late 1980’s) and the recounting of experiences which occurred 34 years previously was a bit confusing to begin with, however once I began to get an understanding of who the different characters were (something made more difficult by the unfamiliar sounding names) and how they interact with each other the story started to become a lot more interesting. I was slowly drawn into the tale of Teoh Yuhn Ling’s developing relationships with Nakamura Aritomo and her other neighbours Magnus, Emily and Frederik at the tea plantation where she is staying, set against her work as an apprentice creating the garden at Yugiri and the political implications of the unrest and attacks on civilians which were occurring at the time. I have not previously read very much about the Malayan emergency and the Japanese invasion of Malaya, and I was also previously unaware of the principles and traditions underpinning Japanese gardens, ukiy-o (woodblock) prints, and the form of Japanese tattooing known as a horitomo – all of which were extremely interesting to learn about as part of the story.

Without me realising it, the book suddenly became one which I didn’t want to put down, instead of one that I was dubious about picking up. As the characters of Ling and Aritomo gathered more depth, and more and more insights into their life experiences were revealed alongside the tale of their developing relationship against the backdrop of their wartime experiences, I found myself really enjoying the unfolding story and the descriptive and evocative writing which brought the characters and the setting to life.

It’s a book that stays with you even after you’ve finished it – and that’s the kind of book I like. If you’ve got the time to wade through the slow paced start and keep on track with the story, then you’re in for an interesting and thought-provoking read.

If you’d like to read reviews of the other Man Booker 2012 short listed novels, here is a list of my fellow bloggers and the books they’ve read:

Yummymummytraining who is reviewing The Lighthouse.

The McLean Hall Adventure is reviewing Bring Up the Bodies.

BabyBishBosh who is reviewing Swimming Home.

Circus Queen who is reviewing Narcopolis.

Mummyratesit who is reviewing Umbrella.

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