The Garden of Evening Mists

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The Garden of Evening Mists
Cover of The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
Author Tan Twan Eng
Country Malaysia
Language English
Publisher Myrmidon Books
Publication date
January 2012
Pages 448 pages
ISBN 1905802498

The Garden of Evening Mists is the second novel by Malaysian novelist Tan Twan Eng, published in January 2012. The protagonist of the novel is the judge Yun Ling Teoh, who was a Japanese prisoner during World War II, and later served as an apprentice of a Japanese gardener. As the story begins, she is trying to make sense of her life and experiences. The novel takes place during three different time periods: the late 1980s, when the main character writes down her story, the early 1950s, when the main action takes place, and World War II, which provides the backdrop for the story.[1]

Critical reception for the novel was generally favourable. It was awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize (2012)[2] and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.[3]


Newly retired Supreme Court Judge Yun Ling Teoh returns to the Cameron Highlands of Malaya, where she spent a few months several years earlier. Oncoming aphasia is forcing her to deal with unsettled business from her youth while she is still able to remember. She starts writing her memoires, and agrees to meet with Japanese professor Yoshikawa Tatsuji. Tatsuji is interested in the life and works of artist Nakamura Aritomo, who used to be the gardener of the Japanese Emperor, but moved to this area to build his own garden.

During the Japanese occupation of Malaya, Yun Ling was in a Japanese civilian internment camp with her sister, Yun Hong. Yun Hong did not make it out alive, and after the war was over, Yun Ling decided to fulfil a promise made to her sister: to build a Japanese garden in their home in Kuala Lumpur. She travelled to the highlands to visit family friend Magnus Pretorius, an ex-patriate South African tea farmer who knew Aritomo. Aritomo refused to work for Yun Ling, but agreed to take her on as an apprentice, so she could later build her own garden. In spite of her resentment against the Japanese, she agreed to work for Aritomo, and later became his lover.

During the conversations with Tatsuji, it comes out that Aritomo was involved in a covert Japanese program during the war, to hide looted treasures from occupied territories. The rumours of this so-called "Golden Lily" program were widespread, and Magnus was killed trying to save his family from the Communist guerilla, who came looking for the gold. Aritomo never talked about the treasure to Yun Ling, but gradually it becomes clear that he might have left a clue to its location. Before he disappeared into the jungle, he made a horimono tattoo on her back. It now appears this tattoo might contain a map to the location of the treasure. Yun Ling decides that, before she dies, she must make sure that no-one will be able to get their hand on her body, and the map. In the meantime, she sets out to restore Aritomo's dilapidated garden.

Main characters[edit]

  • Yun Ling Teoh — The main character, and first-person narrator of the novel. Yun Ling was the only survivor from her internment camp, and suffers survivor guilt for not being able to save her sister. She lost two fingers in the camp, and wears gloves to conceal her injury.
  • Nakamura Aritomo — Aritomo was the gardener of Emperor Hirohito, but was fired over a dispute over garden design with a Japanese notable. After retiring to Malaya to work on his own garden, he continued to work with the Japanese government, to save locals from internment. He also collaborated with the Communist guerilla, to protect the garden and its neighbours from attack. Aritomo, as well as being a gardener and artist, also practised other Zen arts, such as archery and the tea ceremony.
  • Magnus Pretorius — An ex-patriate from Transvaal, Magnus settled in the Cameron Highlands of Malaya to grow tea, and married a local woman. He fought in the Second Boer War, where he lost an eye.
  • Yoshikawa Tatsuji — Tatsuji, a Japanese historian, has attracted negative attention in his homeland for trying to throw light on his country's war crimes. During the war he was a Kamikaze pilot who was supposed to go on a suicide mission, but was saved by his lover and commanding officer.
  • Frederik Pretorius — Magnus's nephew and heir. He had a short affair with Yun Ling before she became Aritomo's lover and has been obsessed with her ever since and unable to move on.
  • Yun Hong — Yun Ling's more attractive sister, she became a comfort girl to the Japanese soldiers at the internment camp. During a childhood visit to Japan she became enamoured with Japanese gardens and used the memories of these to help herself and her sister survive the mental traumas of the camp.
  • Emily : Malaysian-Chinese woman who falls in love with Magnus and marries him
  • Ah Cheong: Yun Ling's servant


Taking place over three different periods of time, the novel deals with a number of historical issues. The Japanese occupation of Malaya is the backdrop for the earlier story, while the central narrative of Yun Ling and Aritomo's relationship plays out against the backdrop of the post-war Malayan Emergency. Finally, as Yun Ling narrates the story, we are in the age of independent Malaysia.[4] The various characters represent different attitudes towards colonialism; Yun Ling – a Straits Chinese – downplays the importance of nationality: "Old countries are dying...and new ones being born. It doesn't matter where one's ancestors came from." (ch. 5) Magnus, meanwhile, carries memories from South Africa under British rule. His sister died in a concentration camp, where he suspects she was murdered by the British. (ch. 4) Tatsuji carries post-colonial guilt for the actions of his nation during the war, and tries to apologise to Yun Ling, but she replies that "[y]our apology is meaningless." (ch. 13)

A central theme in the novel is the role of memory in human existence, and the relationship between memory and forgetting. The book opens with a quote from historian Richard Holmes: while the ancient Greek had a goddess for memory, Mnemosyne, there was none for forgetting. "Yet there should be, as they are twin sisters..." (ch. 1) One reviewer highlighted the role of the dead sister in the story: "Yun Ling's independent spirit and her anger seep like ink-stains into the narrative, but its distilled essence is a quieter appraisal of the dichotomy of memory, its treacherous failures, its cruel conveniences, its fadeout and deliverance."[5] Memory is also strongly tied to guilt, particularly survivor guilt, Yun Ling wonders "[w]hy did she survive and her sister perish?".[6]

Critical reception[edit]

Critical reviews of The Garden of Evening Mists were mostly favourable. The Independent's Boyd Tonkin wrote that "Tan writes with breath-catching poise and grace."[1] He appreciated the combination of "action-packed, end-of-empire storytelling" and Tan's effort to "capture stillness on paper".[1] Meanwhile, Dominique Browning, writing for The Daily Telegraph, described Aritomo as "a fascinating character", and found the book "a strong, quiet novel".[6] Manasi Subramaniam of the Asian Review of Books found the ending "incredibly satisfying", and commented on the writing's "lush beauty and artistry of a Japanese garden".[5] Among the novel's few negative reviews, The Guardian's Kapka Kassabova wrote that "[i]t is impossible to resist the opening sentence" of the novel:[4] "On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan." Yet Kassabova "found [the novel] impossible to love" because of "the quality of the writing." She found "no discernible personality in the dutiful, dull voice of Yun Ling", and the novel's overall effect "one of surprising blandness".[4]

On 25 July 2012, the book was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and on 11 September it was shortlisted.[7]

On 14 March 2013, it won the Man Asian Literary Prize.[2]

On 14 June 2013, it won the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.[8][9]

It was one of eight finalists for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (2014).[10]

In October 2014, it was announced that The Garden of Evening Mists would be adapted into a feature-length film by Malaysia's Astro. Actress Michelle Yeoh has been tipped to play the book's protagonist Teoh Yun Ling.[11]


  1. ^ a b c Tonkin, Boyd (28 April 2012). "The Garden of Evening Mists, By Tan Twan Eng". The Independent (London). Retrieved 15 September 2012. 
  2. ^ a b Richard Lea (14 March 2013). "Man Asian literary prize winner". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 14 March 2013. 
  3. ^ Smith, Lewis (15 June 2013). "Tan Twan Eng wins Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction with The Garden of Evening Mists". London: The Independent. Retrieved 15 June 2013. 
  4. ^ a b c Kassabova, Kapka (24 August 2012). "The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng - review". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 15 September 2012. 
  5. ^ a b Subramaniam, Manasi (27 July 2012). "The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng". Asian Review of Books. Retrieved 15 September 2012. 
  6. ^ a b Browning, Dominique (31 August 2012). "Making Arrangements: ‘The Garden of Evening Mists,’ by Tan Twan Eng". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 September 2012. 
  7. ^ "Welcome to the Man Booker Prize 2012". Man Booker Prize. Retrieved 15 September 2012. 
  8. ^ "Shortlist for 2013 Walter Scott Prize Announced". Borders Book Festival. Retrieved 15 June 2013. 
  9. ^ "Tan Twan Eng wins The Walter Scott Prize". Borders Book Festival. 14 June 2013. Retrieved 15 June 2013. 
  10. ^ "Vasquez celebrates book prize win". Irish Independent. 12 June 2014. Retrieved 12 June 2014. 
  11. ^ Wong, June H.L. (8 October 2014). "How will this 'Garden' grow". Star Publications. The Star. Retrieved 9 October 2014. 

External links[edit]