The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng: Finding Strength in Poetry

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, a novel set in Malaya. Image source.

The Garden of Evening Mists is such a beautifully written story of strength, courage and the passing of time. It is the second novel by Tan Twan Eng to be nominated for the Man Booker Prize: his first novel, The Gift of Rain, was published in 2007 and long-listed for the award that year. This year, The Garden of Evening Mists was published, and short-listed. Perhaps his next novel will win!

Goodreads provides the following plot overview:

It’s Malaya, 1949. After studying law at Cambridge and time spent helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals, Yun Ling Teoh, herself the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle-fringed plantations of Northern Malaya where she grew up as a child. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in Kuala Lumpur, in memory of her sister who died in the camp. Aritomo refuses, but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice ‘until the monsoon comes’. Then she can design a garden for herself. As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to her sensei and his art while, outside the garden, the threat of murder and kidnapping from the guerrillas of the jungle hinterland increases with each passing day. But the Garden of Evening Mists is also a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? Why is it that Yun Ling’s friend and host Magnus Praetorius, seems to almost immune from the depredations of the Communists? What is the legend of ‘Yamashita’s Gold’ and does it have any basis in fact? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all?

It’s a fascinating plot, and I always love reading narratives that demonstrate a character overcoming mental, and physical, challenges. A few years ago I wrote a literature essay on catharsis in The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and it would be interesting to consider these two novels alongside Tan Twan Eng’s sometime. Here are some particularly poignant passages from The Garden of Evening Mists:

“How did it keep you alive?”
“We escaped into make-believe worlds”, I said. “Some imagined themselves building the house of their dreams, or constructing a yacht. The more details they could include, the better they were insulated from the horrors around them. (p57)

I withdrew from the other prisoners, preferring to lose myself in my own thoughts. To distract myself I created a garden in my mind, calling it up from nothing more than memory. (p271)

We can all learn from these quotes, whether in order to defend yourself in the present, or to reinforce your mental strength for the future. When I’m stressed or struggling with something, I like to recite poetry in my head. Also, recently I have learned to create a “safe place” that I can evoke in order to bring feelings of comfort and positivity. Francine Shapiro writes extensively about this in Getting Past Your Past, a very useful book of self-help strategies that I will probably review soon.

Moving on, despite the Southeast Asian identity of the novel, there are several inclusions of English poetry. Both Shelley and Yeats are mentioned, and their poetry becomes cleverly intwined into the narrative. Shelley’s “The Cloud” is particularly intrinsic to the plot’s movement, and, as it is a piece that I hadn’t studied extensively before, I was glad to come across it. Here is the last stanza, which presents the poem’s extended metaphor of the unending cycle of nature:

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.

On the whole, it’s a novel full of beautiful descriptions of landscape – you can hardly find flaws in that.

It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at

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