To be read with: the finest Japanese Sake, (provided by Tokyo Noodle Shop and Sushi Bar on Whyte Ave) or green tea hand picked in the lustrous mountains of Malaysia.
Every country has its dark history. I found this out when I was travelling beautiful Cambodia and visited the killing fields in Phnom Penh. The genocide initiated by the Khmer Rouge was one of the most efficient and devastating genocides in recent history and yet I had had no idea about it. Furthermore, a friend of mine who had a parent that lived under the Khmer Rouge had no idea until she saw my posts on Facebook and asked her mother about it. Every country has its dark history, but that does not mean that they cancel each other out. Instead, it is up to writers, artists, and historians to make sure that the victims are never forgotten, that their voices are never silenced.
The Garden of Evening Mists is about a young woman who is the sole survivor of a concentration camp under Japanese occupation in Malaysia in World War 2. Until reading this book, my knowledge of the Japanese involvement in the war was limited to Pearl Harbor and the dropping of atomic bombs in Japan. This novel delves so much deeper and incorporates the point of view from persons of both cultures.
The novel is beautifully written, involving details about Japanese gardens, the growing and processing of tea, and horimono, which is the art of full body tattooing. The lengths about gardening incorporated the different aspects and styles of each kind of garden and went into detail about where they come from in Japanese culture and what they are meant to represent. I am not someone who thought that they could be interested in chapters about rock placement in gardens, but Tan Twan Eng definitely proved me wrong. It was interesting and vibrant, where I think another writer could have allowed it to be dull. The tea chapters were no problem for me. I love tea. I have a tea advent calendar. I visited the fields of tea leaves in Japan and learned about growing tea. This book goes a step further and shows how different cultures view tea differently, the points in which they intersect and where they deviate between the Malaysian, Japanese and South African characters. Horimono was something that I knew very little about, and it becomes such a big part of the novel, it was really enlightening to learn about this taboo Japanese tradition. Explanations about Japanese art, and traditional Malaysian stories gave more dimension to the two nations at war.
The World War content itself is pretty heavy. It deals with a lot of wartime aspects that some people may find uncomfortable. It is brutal and devastating juxtaposed with the beautiful, languid writing style of Twan Eng. It pushes deeper in to the grey area of wartime survival. What would you do to survive? What would you do for your country? What side would you be on if your country was divided? The book is not black and white, and presents the story without passing the writer’s judgment on to the reader. Which is ironic because the main character is in fact a retired judge.
The Gardens of Evening Mists was a lovely read. It was not a light read by any means, and there were more than a few times that my heart ached. Tan Twan Eng excels at marbling the heartache with beauty though, and I feel that woven into a story about the atrocities of war, is the inkling of hope, that even when the world is dark, there will be good people fighting for justice.