The Garden of Evening Mists takes the reader on a beautiful, haunting, painful, turbulent journey. Tan Twan Eng demands that the reader pay close attention, as instead of crudely spelling everything out she slowly reveals importance aspects of the plot.
The book is filled with intertwining themes. A central theme is the role of memory in human existence. She connects memory with guilt, particularly survivor guilt. Eng also focuses on the relationship between memory and forgetting. She illustrates brilliantly how memories are tenuous. Often one's grasp of the past is severely limited.
Art is shown as a powerful medium. Art heals, soothes, frustrates, manipulates, excites, challenges. Eng illustrates through her different characters varying attitudes towards colonialism. Yun Ling downplays the importance of nationality. Tatsuji carries post-colonial guilt. Magnus has strong memories of his home country under British rule. Finally, war is analyzed. War creates inconceivable circumstances. In a war there is no logic or reasoning.
Eng has carefully constructed her characters. This is a character driven novel. None of the characters are perfect. They have flaws and vulnerabilities.