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Published January 29th 2013
World War II: but not as we know it
Japanese troops landed on the Malaysian coast fifteen minutes after midnight, and an hour before the bombing of Pearl Harbour. If you are an Australian who's grown up on stories of Kokoda and Changi, The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng will enlighten you to another side of the Pacific War.
The Garden of Evening Mists explores the other side of Pacific War
Malaysia has its own myths and legends of WWII. For instance, there may have been a secret organisation called the Golden Lily, which sounds like something from The Da Vinci Code. These treasure hunters were charged with looting the cultural artefacts of invaded countries and hiding them until they could be taken to Japan, using prisoners of war to bury the treasure in caves. The operation was so secretive that all evidence of the prison camps was destroyed, including the prisoners.
Tan Twan Eng draws on Japanese, Chinese, Malay and even South African sources to tell this tale of memory and forgiveness. Yun Ling is the sole survivor of a Japanese prison camp which claimed her sister, who loved Japanese gardens. After the war, despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks out the asistance of the Japanese gardener Aritomo to build a garden as her sister's memorial in the Malayan highlands. Meanwhile Malaysia is entering twelve years of civil upheaval known as the Emergency.
The Man Booker short-listed The Garden of Evening Mists is many things. A romance, a mystery, a tale of redemption, but above all it is a work of art. Tan Twan Eng constructs the story around the art of Japanese gardening. It is there in the language and architecture of the plot, restrained and evocative. The moods of the garden and surrounding mountains are as delicate as haiku. It is like entering another world with its own aesthetic and rules, a refreshing perspective on a period seemingly well known.