It is a BIG Book
The Star, 25 February 2007 Review by SHARON BAKAR

By Tan Twan Eng
Publisher: Myrmidon Books, 448 pages
(ISBN: 9-781-90580-2-043)

I ALWAYS read new Malaysian fiction with a sense of trepidation: on the one hand I want the book so very much to succeed, but on the other every little disappointment is felt even more keenly.

A few pages into Tan Twan Eng’s first novel, The Gift of Rain, I began to relax, and by the end of the first chapter I was so totally hooked that everything else had to be put on hold until I’d finished it!

The quiet life of the elderly Philip Hutton, the last surviving member of one of Penang’s great trading families, is shattered by an unexpected visitor, a Japanese woman called Michiko Murakami. Although they have never met before, their histories are interlinked: both cared deeply for the same man, Hayato Endo, and need to find relief for past pain by sharing their life stories.

Philip first meets the enigmatic Endo, a Japanese diplomat who is leasing a small island from Philip’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 then – as well as the Japanese language and culture.

As the clouds of war grow increasingly ominous, it is clear that Endo is training Philip in skills that will eventually save his life. But is Endo all that he appears to be, and should Philip 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 1930s and 1940s 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 to 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 to 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 this book. 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 terms and should appeal strongly to both an international and a local readership.

  • ‘The Gift of Rain’ will be released in Britain on March 8 and in Malaysia in mid March, when it will be available through all large bookstores.

Article courtesy of The Star