The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
27 March, 2012
Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel, The Gift of Rain, complex, meaty and almost ethereal, is also a love letter to Penang. Even though it discusses a truly brutal episode in Penang’s history, the complex social hierarchy in multicultural Penang, the historical genesis of the island, the power structure and the savagery of the Japanese kempeitai (military police) as they proceeded to invade British Malaya, Tan manages somehow to create a story of love, friendship and honour in a time when those three things were at their most fragile.
It is 1939 and Philip Hutton, the youngest son of one of the original British banking families of Penang, is on the cusp of adulthood, coming to terms with his mixed identity, his relationship with his British father, three half-siblings and estranged Chinese grandfather and his final year at school. During the summer holidays, he meets Endo Hayato, a member of the Japanese consulate who leases the small island where Philip used to play as a child. Philip soon starts to take aikido lessons from Endo and as their friendship blossoms, he is drawn to the enigmatic Endo and Japanese culture. As rumours of Japan’s aggressive foreign policy begin to reach Penang, Philip is torn between honouring his agreement with his aikido teacher and his duties towards his family and people. Always a loner, Philip also becomes friends with Kon, an accomplished fighter who is training with one of Endo’s acquaintances. As war seems inevitable, the boys must choose which path to take. And as Philip makes his choice, he begins to realise that people are never what they seem and intentions can be misleading. As the situation in Penang deteriorates, can he do the right thing to save the people he loves?
Ah, what can I say? After the brilliance of The Garden of Evening Mists, I was half eager and half dreading reading A Gift of Rain. But the fact that I immediately raced on to read a second book by an author, something I rarely do these days, shows how much I loved the book. Although Tan’s debut isn’t as polished as his second novel, it is still a brilliant portrayal of a period of upheaval, betrayal, brutality and hidden courage in Penang’s complex history. The slices of history and culture which Tan seemlessly inserts into his tale is one of mixing and parting, cohesion and separation and ultimately how Penang cannot be fully restrained by any one people. As much as A Gift of Rain is a story of Philip and Endo-san, the Huttons and other wealthy British families, the Chinese who have escaped suppression in their own land and the Malays and Tamils, it is also about the city and its hold on its people.
Tan shows how strategically the Japanese went about their conquest of Malaya, how they took the British by surprise, the abandonment by the British and the stunned people they left behind, the heroism of those who chose to remain and fight for what they loved and the terrifying cruelty of the Japanese kempeitai as they crushed all opposition. He also tries to tease out the concept of honour and duty as understood by the Japanese. Some, like Endo, who are honourable and practice zen, nevertheless still went about the destruction of a city and its people like it was a matter of duty. It’s a difficult thing to grasp and I don’t think it is something that can be easily explained anywhere. And then there are others who are sadistic with a misguided sense of superiority. It’s terrifying to read.
Although I loved this book, there were a number of things I found difficult to swallow and that gnawed at me through the tale. One was Philip’s relationship with Endo. As a teacher and a friend, I couldn’t understand how Philip could revere and honour a man who had betrayed him so deeply. Even the explanations of zen and bushido couldn’t banish those feelings from me. And the second is Philip himself. I guess the reason for the choices Philip makes lies in his loneliness and his unformed identity, and yet, we see Philip grow closer to his family just as everything starts to unravel. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the characters of Philip and Endo trouble me and I can’t quite grasp them. Tan does try to tie everything using karmic influences but it feels a little forced.
However, this didn’t distract from how beautiful and assured Tan’s prose is. And I’m already looking forward to his next offering.