The Garden of Evening Mists is the story of Supreme Court judge Teoh Yun Ling and her attempts to record her memories before the aphasia strips them away. There’s a complex narrative chronology split between the present, her time as a prisoner of war, and the time in which she sought out the Emperor’s ex-gardener Aritomo to teach her to create a garden in memory of her sister, Yun Hong.
From the start we see Yun Ling’s obsession with ageing and decay and how the way in which she views the world is shaped and coloured by the war. Two of the main themes of the novel are remembering and forgetting, and there are some painful scenes where the horror of losing the ability to comprehend the world is poignantly portrayed. There’s both a desperate need to remember – to remember loved ones who are lost, to remember what happened, and to honour those who didn’t make it whilst also dealing with the issue of how much the past should be let go of, the difficult fact that holding on too tightly can damage the present.
As the story progresses we learn more about the complex development of the various relationships depicted. The narrative order makes this particularly interesting as you work backwards to discover how relationships were shaped. There are revelations for both the characters and the reader as we learn that most of the key players are harbouring some form of guilt, and we are constantly forced to re-assess our opinions.
This is a slow burner of a novel which is very real and very human. At the centre is a deep pain which winds itself around the story and permeates every aspect of the characters’ lives. There are references to very specialized knowledge about the art of gardening as well as a good dose of history, but the universal themes of guilt, regret, love, memory, and obsession mean that the story has the ability to resonate with any reader.