In addition to managing such geopolitical points, “The Garden of Evening Mists” is loaded with rich and diverse set of cultural biographies, including Chinese, Malay, Japanese, Afrikaner, and English characters.
Arguably, “The Garden of Evening Mists” is more about memory than history. The lushly told story investigates the nature of memory through its protagonist, Yun Ling, a just-retired judge with aphasia. Yun Ling’s youth was marked by violence and loss when she was sent to a concentration camp during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia. To honor the memory of her sister, Yun Ling undertakes an apprenticeship with Aritomo, the Japanese emperor’s former gardener, who is now working on his own land in Malaysia.
Yun Ling acknowledges that she doesn’t know much about Japanese gardens. Despite Tan’s own initial lack of horticultural knowledge, the titular “Garden” acts almost a character itself. His research included not just the usual books and interviews, but visits to Japanese gardens in San Francisco, Melbourne, and Sydney.
“I’m not a gardener to start with and I’m not very much into nature,” says Tan. “So when I had the idea for the book, I was reluctant. I had to have the feel of it, so I started some planting too. You have to take your gloves off and feel the soil. It’s very dirty.”
The crash course has left Tan with a greater appreciation for flora. He says he has surprised friends by suggesting trips to national parks; he recently made a trip up South Africa’s West Coast to witness its famous spring wildflowers in bloom.
In the book, Aritomo’s garden signature is his deft use of borrowed scenes, such as a wall of hedges with a break in it that perfectly frames a view of a mountain in the distance.