The Gift of Rain
Tan Twan Eng's outstanding debut novel, THE GIFT OF RAIN (Weinstein Books; May 6, 2008; $23.95), which was long-listed for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, is a literary page-turner set against an atmospheric evocation of Malaya just before and during the tumult of the Second World War. With a broad sweep of history that embraces the Chinese, Japanese, British, and Malayan cultural cross-pollination of the region, Tan tells a riveting and poignant tale about a young man's unwitting role in a tangle of wartime loyalties and deceits.
This epic novel, told in evocative retrospect, begins when the now elderly Philip Hutton gets a surprise visit from Michiko Murakami, a Japanese woman who was once romantically linked to Hayato Endo, Philip's former mentor and sensei. Her arrival sparks complicated memories for Philipâ€”some warm, some bitterâ€”but he agrees to share his harrowing tale with her.
The year is 1939. Philip is the youngest son of the owner of one of the dominant British trading companies in Penang, which dates back to the glory days of Victoria's empire.
Hayato Endo is a Japanese consular officer who, like Philip, craves the isolation that the island provides. When he meets the sixteen-year-old, Endo takes an instant liking to the boy, inviting him to visit the island whenever he wishes. He also begins to train Philip in the martial art of aikido. Soon sensei and student become inseparable, with Philip serving as Endo-san's personal guide to Penang and Kuala Lumpur. Others warn young Philip that he should keep his distance from this Japanese man with a mysterious past, reminding the boy of the atrocities that Endo-san's countrymen have reportedly unleashed upon China. But totally enthralled with his new friend and teacher, Philip brushes off their objections as racial prejudice.
Visiting a fortune teller with Endo-san, Philip is told, "You were born with the gift of rain. Your life will be abundant with wealth and success. But life will test you greatly. Rememberâ€”the rain also brings the flood." The woman's prescience proves accurate when war begins and Philip comes to realize that his friend, now the enemy of his country, has irreparably betrayed him. Endo-san is indeed a spy, and Philip's innocence has made him complicit in the Japanese invasion of his homeland. As Malaya's once idyllic way of life is crushed beneath the oppression of war, so too is Philip's life forever changed.
A native of Penang, Tan deftly captures the singularity of the landscape and its people. As someone passionately involved in the conservation of heritage buildings, and THE GIFT OF RAIN serves as a paean to parts of Penang that are fast disappearing or have already been lost forever: the historical buildings, the colonial architecture, and the narrow streets of Georgetown.
As an expert practitioner of aikido, Tan also offers readers a deep understanding of the discipline and nobility of the ancient art. He says:
'There were many philosophical issues of the East I wanted to convey and discuss in THE GIFT OF RAIN, but I did not want to impede the flow of the narrative. I used the Japanese martial art of aikido as a vehicle to carry these philosophical elements, because it embodies so many of these principles and viewpoints. At the highest level of skill aikido becomes a mental and lifestyle discipline rather than a martial art. By using brief scenes describing the practical movements of aikido between the characters, I could let the reader see with greater clarity what I wanted to express.'
Throughout his lush narrative, Tan weaves the details of overlapping historiesâ€”the last days of Imperial China, the opening of Japan to the West, the colonial legacy of the Britishâ€”imbuing THE GIFT OF RAIN with a profound weight that anchors its highly personal story in the mythic splendor of an elusive time and place. In the tradition of war-time storytellers Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene, THE GIFT OF RAIN exhibits both classic storytelling and an exciting new voice in fiction.