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Memory and mystery in bits, pieces

The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng's second novel, continues Eng's exploration, begun in The Gift of Rain, of the mystery that is memory, how remembrance never proceeds in anything like a straight line, and how its gaps are as crucial as silence is to music.

The Garden of Evening Mists

By Tan Twan Eng

Weinstein Books. 335 pp. $15.99

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson

The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng's second novel, continues Eng's exploration, begun in The Gift of Rain, of the mystery that is memory, how remembrance never proceeds in anything like a straight line, and how its gaps are as crucial as silence is to music.

The novel's structure is correspondingly contrapuntal. It opens with the narrator, Teoh Yun Ling, arriving at a place that will prove the focus of recall, a garden in the high hills of Malaysia, a garden called Yugiri, a Japanese word meaning "evening mists." Only then, in a brief flashback, do we learn that Yun Ling has just retired from Malaysia's Supreme Court.

Before settling in at Yugiri, she stays at the Majuba Tea Estate, whose proprietor, Frederik Pretorius, is a friend and former lover. She tells Frederik the reason behind her visit: "The neurosurgeons ran their tests. They told me what I had suspected. I'm losing my ability to read and write, to understand language, any language. In a year - perhaps more, probably less - I won't be able to express my thoughts. I'll be spouting gibberish. And what people say, and the words I see - on the page, on street signs, everywhere - will be unintelligible to me."

Frederik suggests she write down what she wants to remember. She dismisses the idea at first, but later notices that "Frederik's suggestion that I write down the things I do not want to forget has rooted itself into the crevices of my mind. . . . I realize that there are fragments of my life that I do not want to lose, if only because I still have not found the knot to tie them up with."

Complicating matters is the arrival of Tatsuji Yoshikawa, a Japanese historian - controversial in his native land for having exposed Japanese war crimes - who has learned that Yun Ling has a collection of wood-block prints done by Nakamura Aritomo, the man who planted the garden of evening mists.

Yun Ling was born in 1923. She and her older sister had visited Japan with their parents before the war. Her sister fell in love with the gardens there and dreamed of having one of her own. It was from her sister that Yun Ling first heard of Aritomo. When war broke out, and the Japanese occupied Malaysia, she and her sister were sent to a prison camp. Yun Ling is the only survivor of that camp. Two missing fingers are evidence of how brutal the internment was.

All of this the reader learns in bits and pieces, because Yun Ling begins her rather dispassionate account of her life - Frederik had suggested she write it as if it were one of her judicial decisions - with things that happened in 1951. The British are fighting a war against Communist guerrillas that will last a decade. Yun Ling has just been dismissed from her position as a research clerk in the War Crimes Tribunal. She is waiting to be admitted to Cambridge's Girton College to study law, and decides to visit, yes, the Majuba Tea Estate, which at that time was owned and operated by Frederik's uncle, Magnus Pretorius. Magnus sports an eye patch, a souvenir of his internment as a prisoner of war by the British during the Boer War.

It is Magnus who introduces Yun Ling to Aritomo. She wants him to design a garden in memory of her sister. Aritomo turns her down, but offers to teach her the principles of gardening, on condition that she write down nothing that he tells her. She must, instead, commit it to memory.

There is much that is mysterious about Aritomo. He is said to have been Emperor Hirohito's gardener, but was for some reason dismissed. He came to Malaysia before the war, and was able to save many people from his compatriots during the war. His ukiyo-e prints are both rare and renowned. Stranger still, he was also a  master of horimono, the Japanese art of tattooing.

These disparate elements - gardening, wood-block prints, elaborate tattooing - are not merely props serving to illustrate Eng's beautifully written novel. They serve, rather, to embody it. A horimono tattoo always has a small space that is left empty, a sign that the work is never complete. Professor Yoshikawa thinks he knows what one blank space would have represented on a particular tattoo Aritomo had done.

But Aritomo himself serves as the corresponding blank space in this novel. We know from the outset that one day he walked into the rain forest and was never seen or heard from again. And writing about Aritomo enables Yun Ling to face the blank spot in her own history - how exactly she became the sole survivor of that prison camp.

She also comes to grasp something deeper:

I stand at the edge of the pond and gaze at it. . . . In my head I hear Aritomo's voice again. Do everything correctly, and the garden will remember it for you. Over the years I have sometimes wondered why he never wanted his instructions set down on paper, why he was so fearful that his ideas would be stolen and replicated. After staying away from Yugiri for so long, I am now starting to understand, to truly understand, what he meant. The lessons are embedded in every tree and shrub, in every view I look at.

Tan Twan Eng's first novel was long-listed for the Booker Prize in 2007. This new one has been short-listed for this year's Booker Prize. Small wonder. Eng is quite simply one of the best novelists writing today.