Summary and book reviews of The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

The Gift of Rain

A Novel

By Tan Twan Eng

The Gift of Rain
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  • Hardcover: May 2008,
    448 pages.
    Paperback: May 2009,
    448 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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About this Book

Book Summary

Written in lush, evocative prose, The Gift of Rain spans decades as it takes readers from the final days of the Chinese emperors to the dying era of the British Empire, and through the mystical temples, bustling cities, and forbidding rain forests of Malaya.

In 1939, sixteen-year-old Philip Hutton—the half-Chinese youngest child of the head of one of Penang’s great trading families—feels alienated from both the British and Chinese communities. He discovers a sense of belonging in his unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat who rents an island from his father. Philip proudly shows his new friend around his adored island of Penang, and in return Endo teaches him about Japanese language and culture and trains him in the art and discipline of aikido.

But such knowledge comes at a terrible price. As World War II rages in Europe, the Japanese savagely invade Malaya, and Philip realizes that his mentor and sensei—to whom he owes absolute loyalty—is a Japanese spy. Young Philip has been an unwitting traitor, and he is forced into collaborating with the Japanese to safeguard his family. He turns into the ultimate outsider, trusted by none and hated by many.

Tormented by his part in the events, Philip risks everything by working in secret to save as many people as he can from the brutality of the invaders. The Gift of Rain is shot through with universal themes, a novel about agonizingly divided loyalties and unbearable loss. But it is also about human courage and—ultimately—about the nature of enduring loyalty.

Excerpt
The Gift of Rain

Endo and I finished our meal of raw fish and rice wrapped in dried seaweed. It was late when his chauffeur returned us to Istana. As he walked down the steps to the beach he said, “I would like to know more of Penang. Will you show me around?”

“Yes,” I said, pleased that he had asked me.

That was how I became his guide, taking him around the island. He wanted to look at temples first, and I knew immediately which one to show him.

Endo-san was fascinated by the Temple of Azure Cloud, where hundreds of pit vipers took up residence, coiled around incense holders and the eaves and crossbeams of the roof, inhaling the smoke of incense lit by worshipers.

He bought a packet of joss sticks from a monk and placed them in the large bronze urn after whispering a prayer. Plates of eggs had been left on the tables as offerings for the snakes. I stood around, uncertain. Religion had never played a large part in my life. My mother had been a ...

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Reviews

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The real meat of the story is in the novel's second half. The Japanese invade, and Phillip finds himself with conflicting loyalties. Every decision he makes is, in its way, both right and wrong. There is no white or black here, only shades of gray. It's the moral dilemmas Phillip faces and how he confronts them that move this novel from a good first effort into the "must-read" category. The story becomes very fast-paced and cinematic. It is by turns heartbreaking, brutal, and moving.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

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Media Reviews
Entertainment Weekly - Troy Patterson

Getting to his evocative descriptions of temples and local customs involves trudging through a slow-paced spy plot, a heap of superfluous dialogue, and dinner scenes that read like restaurant reviews. The Gift of Rai requires a Zen master’s patience. B-

Kirkus Reviews

[P]ortentous dialogue and belabored themes undermine its otherwise engrossing plot...the author makes it clear that issues of treason and patriotism - and fate and free will - defy easy resolution.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. [A] remarkable debut saga of intrigue and akido...Hutton's first-person narration is measured, believable and enthralling.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Strong characters and page-turning action make this a top pick for historical fiction.

Sunday Telegraph - Ed Lake

What distinguishes The Gift of Rain is its wistful and surprisingly earnest supernaturalism. Its characters all seem to have met in previous lives, to be haunted by ancient prophecies, or to be cursed to turn into one another.

Tan Twan Eng's vision - the detached, aesthetic air, concentration on the visual and racy, episodic plotting -might perhaps have been more naturally realised in a decent Manga production. But this is an accomplished, if eccentric, debut.

The Guardian - Sam Jordison

Most impressive, however, is the modern author's willingness to deal in the kind of grey areas and moral ambiguities to which [Conrad] used to give such eloquent voice ... I'm aware that in drawing parallels to a great writer like Conrad I might quickly go too far, so let me put the brakes on now. The Gift Of Rain is no Heart Of Darkness, or even The Rover. In fact, a more accurate comparison for the book could be to a Merchant Ivory film... Only with far more martial arts and far less Helena Bonham Carter. Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing - and the book will probably make an excellent feature - but sometimes the descriptions of cocktail parties, old cars, sumptuous interior locations, and costumes grow tiresome.

Reader Reviews
Sandy

Wonderful book
This was one of the best book I've read in a long time. I book of family relations, deep friendships and hardships. Wonderful story of the Japanese invasion of Penang during WWII.

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Beyond the Book

A Short History of Penang
Most of the action in The Gift of Rain occurs on the island of Penang (part of the Malayan state of Penang) situated off the northwest corner of the Malay Peninsula, in the Strait of Malacca (maps of South-East Asia, Malaysia and Penang). The small, turtle-shaped island has a total area of approximately 293 square kilometers (183 square miles), with an estimated population of 678,000 (2007). Most people live in or near the capital city of George Town. The island itself is less developed than the rest of the state of Penang, as its interior is hilly and densely forested.

Although mainland Malaysia itself...

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