He touched the envelope on the table. ‘You mentioned that you worked as a researcher for the War Crimes Tribunal.’
‘I wanted to ensure that those who were responsible were punished. I wanted to see that justice was done.’
‘You think I am a fool? It was not all about justice.’
‘It was the only way that I would be allowed to examine the court documents and official records,’ I said. ‘I was searching for information about my camp. I wanted to find where my sister was buried.’
His eyes narrowed. ‘You didn’t know where your camp was located?’
‘We were blindfolded when the Japs – when the Japanese – transported us there. It was somewhere deep in the jungle. That was all we knew.’
‘The other survivors from your camp, what happened to them?’ A butterfly trembled over the cannas by the verandah. It finally alighted on a leaf, its wings closing together in prayer.
‘There were no other survivors.’
There was something really compelling about The Garden of Evening Mists, but despite what you might expect from the above quotation, it was not the plot. In fact, if the book had solely carried its message on the back of the plot, I would not have enjoyed this at all. On the face of it, the plot seems about the atrocities of war, the destruction of peoples lives by it, as well as the damage that is caused by hatred and the longing for revenge, and how difficult it is to not just survive, but live, having experienced all of this.
‘They couldn’t kill me when we were at war. And they couldn’t kill me when I was in the camp,’ he said finally, his voice subdued. ‘But holding on to my hatred for forty-six years . . . that would have killed me.’
I should say, that the only reason that this would not have worked well for me as a plot because I would constantly wonder about the real life stories that the author may have been inspired by, and then would lose interest in fictional accounts of this if there are biographies that would give a factual account. What can I say, I like historical non-fiction.
However, as mentioned, there is more to the story - I really enjoyed that the book actually changes with every vignette that is disclosed to the reader. What appeared as fact, what I learned about the story and the characters, changes with every new revelation, so much like the chosen subject of the book:
‘Gardens like Yugiri’s are deceptive. They’re false. Everything here has been thought out and shaped and built. We’re sitting in one of the most artificial places you can find.’
On a related and similar note, the story also gives insight into parts of history that aren't usually the focus on popular novels. I loved this. While the main story is set in post-war Malaysia and the main character reflects back on the time of Malaya during the Japanese occupation, Tan Twan Eng also weaves in facts about the colonial regimes in both Malaya and South Africa, and the struggle of the Boers with the British. It's another aspect, or perspective that is reflected in the novels construct of the Garden - the characters describe historical facts by focusing the reader's attention on the characters' backstory, and it works.
‘Tominaga explained it to me,’ I said. ‘But I’ve only just really understood it now – the effect of seeing the view is much more powerful than if the sea has not been obstructed.’
The Garden of Evening Mists may not be the most in-depth work of historical fiction - much of the story is taken up by gardening and (way too much) discussions about gardening - but it makes up for it with vivid descriptions that transported me back to Tanah Rata and the surrounding Cameron Highlands, an area that I enjoyed exploring a few years ago. And of course, the mention of the local tea meant I needed to read the book with a cup close by. Book, tea, memories.
Before me lies a voyage of a million miles, and memory is the moonlight I will borrow to illuminate my way.
Cameron Highlands near Tanah Rata, where the novel is set.