“Moments in time when the world is changing bring out the best and the worst in people.”
Well worth its Man Booker Prize consideration, The Gift of Rain is an impressive debut for Tan Twan Eng. A retrospective historical novel, the story told through the eyes of Philip Hutton, a child of British and Chinese descent, and his experience living in Malaya under Japanese occupation in the Second World War. More specifically, it explores his relationship with a Japanese sensei, Hayato Endo (affectionately “Endo-san”), and the conflict that this all combines to create.
The story begins on a much older Philip, and the tragedy becomes firmly established. The story acts as a harsh coming of age with a powerful resonance as, much like the colourful landscape we are introduced to, Philip’s character becomes less idealistic and more eroded. Japanese occupation requires Philip to push himself to the fullest in order to protect his family, and is in constant scrutiny of his own actions and the loyalties that they strengthened or compromised. Through his reflections, Philip alters his opinion of what it is to be older throughout, and questions whether at seventy five it really is the end for him, or not.
The foreshadowing of Philip in his present may seem to drag on slightly, the loss of context making his frequently ambiguous foreboding mentions of the pains of the war seem a little melodramatic. That being said, it’s worth it, as once consumed in Philip’s world, it’s ironically hard not to feel with a character so determined to distance himself from his own pained emotions.
Speaking of which, looking at the title, you will hardly be shocked to discover that there is a heavy spiritual element to the story. I rather arrogantly assumed that, having lived in Asia, I would completely understand the concepts and terminology, or quickly learn the ones I didn’t; it took a few chapters to really get the swing of things. The need to concentrate only goes deeper as Philip is introduced to new ideas, old spirits and strong bonds, picking up various names to build on his identity along the way. Tan is succinct enough that Google won’t be necessary, but if unprepared, there is a risk at the start that you will be doing more studying than engaging. But with time, this nature of Philip’s character, as well as his constant obsession with holding onto memories, this determination opens us to a wonderfully sensory piece, transporting us into his world to a poetic extent, whether capturing the finest detail of beauty or terror. And martial arts. There is a lot of martial arts.
However, what I am perhaps the most impressed with is the story’s dealing with race. Japan’s involvement in World War 2 is always something that fascinated me, but at the same time not something I wholly wanted to investigate. From many British soldiers accounts, it was one of the harshest regimes, and even peers of mine in Hong Kong told stories about Japanese culture both then and now like they were fireside stories for camp, sadly making Bridget Jones’ mother’s opinion of the Japanese being a ‘cruel race’ a far more popular opinion than I would like. Naturally then, it makes the topic a hard one to tackle and open up to a Western audience. What the Gift of Rain does is bring a sensitive perspective in showing the lives all citizens in Malaya of all races, Philip experiencing this hostility even before the war due to his mixed race- very close to what I have witnessed over recent years. Tan explores how the practical survival instinct to choose a side is near impossible when opened up to enough humanity, and how what is truly crucial is to hang onto the characteristics that you choose for yourself.
Overall, I would say that it needs a little faith and patience to get off its feet, but once in flight it becomes a story you’re unlikely to forget.