The Gift of Rain should be high on readers' lists if for no other reason than its lyrical narrative style. From the first page the author spins a web of words around the reader, drawing him or her into the sounds, sights and smells of Malaya:
"The light was fading and the scent of wet grass wove through the air like threads entwining with the perfume of the flowers, creating an intricate tapestry of fragrance. I was out on the terrace, alone as I had been for many years, on the edge of sleep, dreaming of another life. The door chimes echo through the house, hesitant, unfamiliar in a place they seldom entered, like a cat placing a tentative paw on a path it does not habitually walk."
The book is divided into two parts. The
first half sets the stage. Phillip meets Endo and begins his
training. The author establishes Phillip as an outsider, a
part of neither the Chinese nor English community; the
reader is introduced to his family and other members of the
community who play pivotal roles later in the novel. Penang
and its environs are described with great depth and beauty;
but, although the writing is stunning and the plot is
reasonably engaging, the tale itself is relatively
pedestrian and unremarkable.
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, 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.
Particularly affective is Eng's ability to capture the mixed emotions and motives of his characters. The Huttons in particular feel "real," with the family members expressing everything from love, concern and understanding for Phillip, to considering him a traitor in spite of his best efforts on their behalf.
Elements of Asian philosophy are liberally sprinkled throughout the book. Daoist, Confucian, and most especially Buddhist ideals are discussed, although never in such depth as to bog down the story. While the references to past lives and predestination may fail to resonate with some readers, it is these concepts that drive the decisions Phillip and Endo make, and they are therefore key to the reader understanding the rationale behind these characters' actions.
Readers unfamiliar with Asian history will find that Eng provides just enough historical background of the period leading up to and during World War II for them to put the book into its historical context. He does an excellent job of inserting small, historically accurate details into Phillip's experience of the Japanese occupation. A few of the paragraphs relating to pre-war history, though, aren't written with the same grace as the rest of the novel, making these blocks of text appear awkward. Fortunately, they don't occur often enough to deter the reader.
Its moral ambiguities, along with its very readable style, make this novel an ideal choice for book groups. Vivid characterizations, detailed descriptions, and well-written action sequences make this a remarkable coming-of-age novel, one that readers will not soon forget.
About the Author
Tan Twan Eng was born in Penang, but lived in various places in Malaysia as a child. He studied law through the University of London, and later worked as an advocate and solicitor (attorney) in one of Kuala Lumpur's most reputable law firms. He has a first-dan ranking in akido and is a strong proponent for the conservation of heritage buildings. After spending a year traveling around South Africa he has currently settled in Cape Town where he is working on his second book.
Read his interview at BookBrowse.
Useful to Note
In traditional Chinese style, the family name precedes the given name(s). Tan is the author's family name, Twan Eng his given names. Some authors choose to anglicize their names for the purposes of publishing in English, so that their family name appears on the book cover last not first, others such as Tan Twan Eng do not.
However, English language databases inevitably place the family name last - hence the discrepancy between the way Tan Twan Eng's name appears on the book jacket and how it appears at BookBrowse.
This review was originally published in June 2008, and has been updated for the May 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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