"In his debut novel, 'The Gift of Rain,' Tan Twan Eng gives us the painful gift of a fully realized account of Japanese imperialism during World War II.
It's an epic journey into the eye of the Asian storm, filled with the dread and turmoil that came with Japan's invasion of its neighbors. At the same time, Eng's tale overflows with mesmerizing beauty and wonder.
To personalize the magnitude of the events swirling around Asia at the time, Eng tightens his focus on the travails of a 16-year-old boy living in Penang, a tiny island off the coast of the Malay Peninsula and the author's own place of birth. In 1939, the boy, Philip Hutton, is the alienated half-Chinese, half-white son of one of the region's richest trading barons. He's shunned by both the island colony's British elite and its Asian community.
Philip thinks his life has changed for the better after befriending Endo, a mysterious Japanese man who rents a house from his absent father. In Endo, Philip finds a gentle, doting father figure who trains him in the discipline of Zen Buddhism and the martial-arts practice of aikido. In exchange, Philip eagerly shares the secrets and history of Penang, oblivious to his sensei's hidden agenda. Endo is a spy gathering information for the coming Japanese invasion. But he's more than just a spy; he's a victim of coercion and therefore a complex and more interesting character."
â€” Tom Horgen, Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Tan Twan Eng's haunting debut novel is a complex tale of identity and betrayal, steeped in the culture of colonial Malaya. Or, more specifically, the culture clash. "The Gift of Rain" pivots on the fulcrum of the Second World War, unfolding its mystery both forward and backward through time. This lushly multi-layered novel, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, is sure to become a book club favorite.
When readers first meet Philip Hutton, he is an old man, a former aikido champion and master teacher, left alone with his memories. There are oblique, mysterious hints of some dark loss. An unexpected visitor with close ties to his past forces him to confront the regrets and betrayals that haunt him. Most of the novel works backward, probing the choices Hutton made as he came of age in Penang in the years before World War II. At the center of his story is the memory of Endo-san, the Japanese diplomat who taught Hutton aikido. Endo-san was more than a sensei of martial arts, and Philip's bond to him was one of duty, obedience, love and treachery in this life - and perhaps previous lives.
Rich in a sense of history and place, the novel unfolds its secrets gradually. Readers who loved the lyrical prose of 'The Kite Runner' or 'The God of Small Things' will immerse themselves in Tan Twan Eng's poetic descriptions of Penang and its nearby jungles during the years surrounding the war.
The son of a wealthy British trader and a Chinese woman, Hutton is uncertain of his place in his English family and with the larger expatriate culture of Penang. Endo-san gives Philip a sense of grounding, of purpose and place. Through Endo-san, he can begin to reconcile his Chinese heritage with his English one.
However, during the brutal Japanese occupation, Hutton's reliance on his sensei and allegiance to the Japanese become complicated. Torn between his bond to his sensei and his need to keep his family safe, all the choices available to him will end in betrayal. He will either betray the fragile peace he has made with his mixed heritage, or he will betray the deep bond between sensei and student, even as Endo-san's allegiances become questionable.
"The Gift of Rain" rises and falls with the slow grace of aikido, one of the "softer" styles of martial arts. Rather than attack using force, aikido focuses on learning to fall correctly, and to use the attacker's momentum to counter and neutralize the attack. With this in mind, the slow pace of the story becomes a philosophical choice, revealing the pattern of actions and complex loyalties with a meditative clarity. The image of the ukemi, the special grace a student of aikido uses to absorb the force of a fall and to rise unharmed, recurs throughout the book.
Because Hutton tells most of the story to expunge the memories that haunt him, the rhythms of the narrative become haunting in their own right. Readers with the patience to await the story's slow unfolding will be rewarded with a dark and beautiful tale of shifting allegiances."
â€” Tom Horgen, Newark Star Ledger
"The Gift of Rain, a debut novel by Tan Twan Eng ($23.95, Weinstein Books) attracted accolades well before its publication in May. It was long-listed for the 2007 Man Booker Prize and is likely to sweep up others as an evocation of Malaya just before and during the tumult of the Second World War. Its sweep of history takes in China, Japan, British and Malayan cultural cross-pollination as Tan provides a riveting, poignant story about a young man's unwitting role in a tangle of wartime loyalties and deceits. This is truly an epic novel in all respects. From its first sentence, "I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told meâ€ť to its last, this evocative retrospective reaches back to 1939 and involves characters so finely drawn they take on lives that clash despite the deep ties between them. Mark this to be a novel you must read before the summer ends.
â€”Alan Caruba, Bookviews.com
"'The Gift of Rain' sends the reader back into the world of Somerset Maugham - the waning British Empire, the simmering discord between classes and races, the thick tropical surroundings that are both beautiful and suffocating - but at a different angle. Maugham cast a cynical eye on human nature and its frailties; Tan Twan Eng looks upon them with compassion, like a creator might view the imperfections of his handiwork.
He sets his story on the Malaysian island of Penang just before and during the Japanese occupation of World War II.
The narrative voice belongs to Philip Hutton, speaking in flashbacks. He is the only child of his British father's second marriage, to a Chinese woman who died young. Philip is 16 when he meets Hayato Endo, a Japanese aikido master isolated on a small island rented to him by Philip's father. Left largely on his own while his father and half-siblings attend to business abroad, Philip befriends Endo and becomes his pupil.
While the island's British community blindly clings to its conviction that the Japanese will not attack, Philip knows that an invasion is inevitable. Worse, he suspects that Endo is involved, and he is torn between his love for his teacher and his loyalty to his country and kin.
When the Japanese attack, Philip strikes a bargain: He will offer his services as a translator - he has learned Japanese from Endo - and in return his family will not be interred with the rest of the British. But the life of a collaborator is complicated, and soon another deal must be negotiated, this time with the Communist resistance. Playing each side against the other is dangerous - and costly.
Eng's writing is luminous and dreamy. He is never in a hurry to tell Philip's story; he lingers over details ("Far away the surf raced along the sand, hissing as it melted into the beach"), just as the 72-year-old Philip recalling his youth delights in the memory of a scent or a color. Even violence is meted out with a certain poetic beauty, and though the particulars of the Japanese occupation of Penang are fictional, the larger picture rings true to history.
This is a grandly old-fashioned book in its scope and lushness, in its lack of irony, in its preoccupation with loyalty and duty and the moral quicksand to which they sometimes lead.
'The Gift of Rain' is a rich and rewarding novel."
â€” The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"'The Gift of Rain' (Weinstein Books, 448 pages, $23.95), by Tan Twan Eng: Set on the Malaysian island of Penang in 1939, "The Gift of Rain" offers a look at the life of 16-year-old Philip Hutton â€” half British, half Chinese â€” who feels like an outsider in his family. Lonely and alienated, he strikes up an unexpected friendship that will set the course of his life.
Philip and Michiko Murakami both love a man they met in their youth and both lost long ago. Michiko visits Philip in his old age. In her dying days, she shows up on his doorstep and they share their stories, learning more about themselves and the nature of love along the way.
The man they both loved is Hayto Endo, a Japanese diplomat who moves onto a small island near Philip's house in the days before World War II. Philip finds the acceptance he craves in Endo and begins to be trained by him in the discipline of aikido, which teaches not only a deadly martial art but a rigid code of honor and loyalty.
As the friendship deepens, to the disapproval of Philip's father and sister, Philip shows Endo around Penang, pointing out the best views of the harbor, the railroads, the island's roads.
When the war finally hits Penang and the Japanese invade, Philip realizes he has been used by his friend and teacher, who is a Japanese spy. His bitterness is not something he can maintain, however. While his brother goes to war and his sister and father fiercely resist the invaders, Philip chooses another path, deciding to work with the Japanese in the hope that he can thereby protect his family.
'I was choosing a path that had the strongest chance of saving all of us, all of my family, and I would take it,' Philip says. 'There was a war on and surely no one could blame me â€” or would even remember when it was all over.'
Of course, people did care and remember.
For one thing, many feel he is too eager to help the Japanese. The first thing Philip is told to do by his new masters is show his respect to a picture of the emperor. 'I knew what was required and so I bowed low and respectfully to it.'
Eng's graceful prose evokes a time and place that is little known or remembered now, making it both exotic and familiar, and his beautiful narrative is woven with strong images and characters.
He wonders between extraordinary beliefs â€” "I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me" â€” and familiar emotions.
'The Gift of Rain' is a gift to read."
â€” The San Francisco Chronicle
"The Gift of Rain is an amazing book. Love, cruelty, sacrifice are all hereâ€” and more. With its beautifully evoked place and time, this quietly spellbinding novel tells of lives lived through war and occupation, through years of alliances, bonds, and betrayals with compelling grace and rare depth. The Gift of Rain embodies, in a way this reader has seldom encountered, how what can be heartbreaking in life can also be heartmaking."
â€”Rick Simonson, The Elliott Bay Book Company
"Disbelief may also flirt with us at times - but engagingly - in this Man Booker Prize finalist with a whiff of genre. Thrilling, introspective and a wee bit NewAge-y with its martial arts philosophy, "Gift" is mainly the story of aging and reclusive Philip Hutton, the son of a Chinese mother and an English businessman settled on the Malaysian island of Penang. Hutton revisits the horrific Japanese invasion of his island home when the woman who loved his Japanese martial arts teacher arrives at the Hutton family mansion to find out how her lover died. The novel is a meditation on the deals humans make to survive, as well as the bond between a pupil and his teacher in an Asian culture. Tan Twan Eng's lucid writing carries along the story effortlessly."
â€” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"A powerful first novel about a tumultuous and almost forgotten period of history...The Gift of Rain is a war novel with a personal odyssey at its heart, one that complicates the stark lines of right and wrong during wartime...drawing the reader into a web of divided loyalties."
â€”The London Times Literary Supplement
"A rich, absorbing epic"
â€”The London Times
"A remarkable book...about war, friendship, memory and discipline."
Tan Twan Eng has taken the raw material of history and woven a deeply moving tale of a man's life...the novel reveals an emotional depth coupled with a heartfelt exploration of a dramatic moment in a community's history and how war ravaged a hitherto relatively harmonious tranquility. A richly rewarding read."
"Vivid...Strong narrative...rich in imagery and action... I was so totally hooked that everything else had to be put on hold until I had finished it!"
â€”Sharon Bakar, The Star (Malaysia's largest circulation newspaper)