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.

Tan Twan Eng has been on my radar for quite a while now every since I first heard about The Gift of Rain a few years ago. And then I was lucky enough to attend a talk he gave at the Galle Literary Festival in 2011 and found him to be both eloquent and thoughtful. So naturally I was interested in his latest offering, The Garden of the Evening Mists, and was pleased to be invited to participate in the blog tour.

And what a book. As soon as I started reading, I felt that little pressure in my head that told me that this was a book I was going to love. The style of writing, the content, the balance was just right. And so it proved until the very last page.

The Garden of the Evening Mists
centres around Yugiri, a garden in the highlands of Malaya created by Emperor Hirohito’s last gardener, Nakamura Aritomo. Several years after WWII, a young Straits Chinese woman arrives at Yugiri (which means evening mist in Japanese), intent on persuading Aritomo to create a Japanese garden in memory of her sister who had died in a Japanese slave camp during the war. Yun Ling, scarred, angry, traumatised and the sole survivor of her Japanese prison camp, soon becomes Aritomo’s apprentice and, through her stay with him, learns to overcome some of her trauma through the discipline of learning how to create a Japanese garden. Malaya is undergoing an upheaval as Chinese communists fight against their British colonial rulers and as the violence encroaches upon Yugiri and the neighbouring Majuba Tea Estate, Yun Ling must once again face her fear and guilt. Amidst the violence, Yugiri is a tranquil place of calm and as the garden is reborn, Yun Ling is awakened to the mystery of why Aritomo, exiled from his homeland, remains here.

One of the reasons why I was intrigued by this book was the subject matter. The tipping point before the birth of Malaysia, the atrocities commited by the Japanese and the brutal indifference of the British. And amidst that, a lone Japanese gardener with a suspicious past, an interest in ukiyoe and tattoos and a sudden wish to help a broken soul. The mixture of cultures and histories is one that I find very difficult to resist. Often if it touches upons cultures you are familiar with, you wait for a slip, a misunderstood explanation, but here, Tan’s research is spotless, his understanding of the Japanese and their culture beyond reproach (apart from the misspelling of the Japanese word for tattoo artist which should be horishi instead of horoshi). And he is able to shine a light onto their assault on Malaya with clarity and sympathy. It’s not an easy subject. And neither is the conflict between the Chinese and Malays during the years before Malaysian independence.

What Tan is so good at showing is that there is no country where there is only one perspective. Countries are a mixture of ideologies, cultures and languages. I love books that show this side of life and people and The Garden of the Evening Mists is just that. I was continuously impressed by the spare, beautiful writing. The characters retained enough mystery to keep you wanting to know more. And the story, well, it is heartbreakingly beautiful.

So now, I’ve picked up his first book, The Gift of Rain, just because I want to read more about this mixing of cultures which Tan is so adept in portraying.

I would like to thank the lovely people at Myrmidon Books who kindly sent me a copy of the book to review.