IF you’ve never seen one, it’s almost impossible to capture the mesmerizing allure of a classic Japanese garden — and even standing for the first time in front of a bed of raked gravel can be a challenge. No vivid colors. No sweeping borders. No topiary animals. No shooting fountains. No fun, it would seem. Still, the traditional Japanese garden, esoteric as it is, has an ancient and undeniable appeal. It’s about secrets, perspectives, initiation, memory and time. It may take ages for a Japanese garden to come to maturity, to say nothing of the gardener. And yet, for all its mystery, the Japanese garden reveals itself as a capacious symbol of the human soul, replete with exactly the kinds of “borrowed landscapes” we live with. But we call them our personal histories.
The crucial action in “The Garden of Evening Mists,” a strong, quiet novel by Tan Twan Eng, a Malaysian writer who now lives part of the year in Cape Town, takes place in Malaya just after World War II. The beautiful garden referred to in the title plays host to the intertwining of several lives at a period cursed with being, so the saying goes, an “interesting time.” As the story begins, decades later, Judge Yun Ling Teoh, the second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court that sits in Kuala Lumpur, is retiring from the bench. In late middle age, she has been given a terrible diagnosis: she will soon lose her memory, indeed all cognitive function. She has unfinished business with the past, so the approaching obliteration of her mind sends her back, urgently, to a time she has done her best to repress.
With her beloved older sister, an artist, she had been held prisoner in a Japanese internment camp when she was 19 years old. She survived. Her sister did not. Yun Ling’s last work — her last act of judgment, perhaps — will address her own actions during that time. Why did she survive and her sister perish?
In her final days, Yun Ling drives to Yugiri, in the Cameron Highlands, about four hours from Kuala Lumpur. There she returns to the Japanese garden that has haunted her since the last time she visited, 35 years earlier. It is “a place that existed only in the overlapping of air and water, light and time,” where she is struck by “the scent of pine resin sticking to the air, the bamboo creaking and knocking in the breeze, the broken mosaic of sunlight scattered over the ground.”
The garden called Evening Mists is where she learned about the art of borrowed scenery, “taking elements and views from outside a garden and making them integral” to the garden itself. Evening Mists was the masterpiece of a man who had once been employed by the emperor of Japan — and, in an unlikely twist of fate, it is this gardener, Aritomo, who helps heal the trauma of her imprisonment. He too is long gone. Yun Ling’s last job will be to restore his garden to its former glory.
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