The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

published 2012    chapter 11

[kyudo is the Japanese martial art of archery]

‘Why would you want to learn kyudo?’

‘Doesn’t it say in Sakuteiki that to become a skilled gardener you ought to take up one of the other arts too?’

He reflected on my reply for a moment or two. ‘Perhaps I have an old set of clothes somewhere.’

I returned to the archery range a few days later, carrying the kyudo kit in a bag. Before entering the practice hall, I removed my shoes and placed them on the lowest step. In a space sectioned off by a curtain at the back of the hall I changed into a thin white cotton robe and black hakama – loose pleated pantaloons. Emily had done the alterations for me herself, and the kit fitted me well. Coming out from the cubicle, I held up the long, tangled straps of the hakama and gave Aritomo a perplexed look. He showed me how to tie them around my waist with a series of loops and knots.

observations: It’s a complicated business to put on the clothes (and a special glove, described just after this bit) and it’s a complicated business trying to describe this book: the narrator is a Malayan woman, a judge, who was imprisoned by the Japanese during the second world war. Her companion in kyudo is a Japanese man who was once gardener to the Emperor, who is teaching her how to create a garden. There is also a complicated time scheme: the camp in the war, the gardener’s house in about 1951, and an unspecified time which might be in the 1980s. 

I found this a very difficult structure: I don’t in general mind mixed time frames, but this one was very unclear, there weren’t sufficient distinctions between the separate parts of the narration. Also, throughout the book, non-English phrases and words crop up, usually without explanation, which was annoying, especially as many of the conversations in the book would have been in other languages, so they have been silently translated anyway. The underlying story is compelling, but I found the method of telling it unnecessarily difficult and off-putting – I thought the author was asking too much of the reader, while not offering quite enough to make it worthwhile. 

And sometimes it was not difficult - it was easy to conjure up a response to this kind of thing:
[A] tattered prayer-flag was flapping away. “Is it the wind that is in motion, or is it only the flag that is moving?”

“Both are moving, Holy One.”

The monk shook his head, clearly disappointed by my ignorance. “One day you will realise that there is no wind, and the flag does not move,” he said. “It is only the hearts and minds of men that are restless.”

‘For a while we did not speak’ is the next line. Yeah right.

It’s a pity, because much of the story is good: the details of life in the camps, the rules of gardening, many of the characters, the information about tattooing.

Links on the blog: More archery in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. The Malayan rubber slump, mentioned in the book, was familiar to us from that textbook of international affairs, Ballet Shoes: it’s the reason why the Simpsons stay on with the Fossils, and Mr Simpson is free to drive the girls to auditions.


  1. This one sounds a bit too complicated for me, Moira! Have a great weekend

    1. Thanks for visiting Carole! It told me a lot about Malaya that I didn't know, but I wouldn't describe it as a must-read.

  2. Moira - The Japanese archery theme does sound interesting. So does the story itself. I may try this one to 'stretch myself,' but I know what you mean about a story that's more complicated and told in a more complex way than it needs to be.

    1. Yes - if only we had unlimited reading time we could be more willing to read those books that aren't quite essential, but might be interesting...


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