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The Gift of Rain: A Novel Hardcover – May 1, 2008
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Philip first meets the enigmatic Endo, a Japanese diplomat who is leasing a small island from Phillip's father, in 1939. Half-British, half-Chinese Philip is a loner and a misfit, and finds himself drawn into a relationship with Endo, who takes him on as his student and teaches him aikido-jitsu - a martial art still in its infancy, as well as the Japanese language and culture. As the clouds of war grow increasingly ominous, it is clear that Endo is training Phillip in skills which will eventually save his life. But is Endo all that he appears to be, and should Phillip be prepared to trust him? Once the Japanese invade, Philip is forced to make the most difficult decisions about where his loyalties must lie.
There is a tremendous amount of historical fact and, of course, as in any Malaysian novel aimed at an international readership, a great deal of information on the complex social background of the country. What is quite amazing is that despite this the pace of the story never becomes bogged down by a heavy load of background detail. Indeed where the novel succeeds best is in the strong drive of the narrative, and in the painstaking recreation of the setting.
Penang of the thirties and forties is brought to life so well that you feel that you could almost be reading a contemporary account. Particularly vivid are the scenes of the British attempting the flee Penang during the first air-raids, and the harrowing scene of a village massacre.
Although written in a style that deliberately does not draw attention to itself, the novel unashamedly draws on romantic oriental elements with the deliberate chinoiserie of the imagery (the waves unroll like Chinese scrolls, the clouds are compared a dragon's belly) and the delicate motifs of insects - fireflies, butterflies and dragonflies which each represent an aspect of the story.
"The Gift of Rain" is in every sense a "big" book, not only substantial in size, but also in theme, and in the amount of incident that is crammed into it. It's hard to know just how to pigeonhole it. Literary fiction? Thriller? Historical novel? Big screen kung-fu movie with Hollywood glitz and glamour translated to the page? The novel combines elements of all of these, yet succeeds very much on its own term, raising important questions about loyalty and betrayal, predestination and free will.
It's one of those rare examples of a deeply satisfying novel that leaves nothing to be desired.
Set during WWII-era, the novel stars Philip Hutton, the half-Chinese son of a wealthy English trader living in Penang, Malaysia.
Philip's mixed blood causes him not to be fully accepted by either the Chinese or the English, leaving him unsure of his place in the world.
Then, one day, he meets a visiting Japanese official, Endo-san, who takes him on as a pupil to teach him the secrets of aikido along with the underlying 'way of life'.
Endo's motives are not completely disinterested, though: with the Japanese preparing to invade Malaysia, Endo can get a lot of information out a young boy so familiar with the island grounds.
When the Japanese ultimately occupy Penang, Philip must make a choice: he can betray his people, by siding with the Japanese, or fight against the latter. Caught between two fires, Philips opts for a compromise of some sort: he becomes the aide of Endo (a high-ranking official of the invading forces) but uses his influence to soften the effects of the domination.
Nothing is really black-or-white in the way Philip or Endo-san behave. Just like in real life, characters are torn between feelings of love and duty, between fear and vengeance.
Endo-san relationships with Philip lives in this space and is very cleverly constructed.
If the setting alone (I gather most western reader won't be overly familiar with Japan role during WWII, aside from the main events we all know about) doesn't draw you in, the engaging narrative will do, coupled with evocative passages that offer dreamlike depictions of the lush Malay landscapes.
On another level, the book explores the morality of choices one makes in life and the impact that has on current and future times in the lives of the main characters. The concepts of fate, destiny and choice, in the context of one's culture underlie the story. An extension of that is the impact different cultural values have when differing cultures collide.
I have no hesitation in recommending this book as it is a well-written and intriguing tale which made me think about what I had read each time I put the book down. It also made me reflect on the choices I might have made if I were in any of the main characters' position. Finally, i enjoyed the WWII historical background.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This is the first book I have read by Tan Twan Eng, I will definitely check out his other books.Read more