Tag Archives: Shirley Hazzard

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

I am a little in awe of novels set in the Far East, and especially if the action occurs during the war. Three other books come to mind that are worth reading: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard, A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (reviewed here). Life seems to be experienced more at the extremes in these novels. The privations are fiercer, punishments are harsher and the deaths more violent.

63 tale

The Gift of Rain has been on my tbr pile for sometime, recommended by the wonderful blogger Annecdotalist and endorsed by a place on the longlist for the Booker Prize in 2007.

Rain, as a gift, is of course ambiguous as it is for the protagonist of this novel, Philip Hutton, who is blessed with the gift of the title. There are few certainties in his life, and he is pulled in two or more directions throughout the novel. He tells his story to a visitor as an old man. It is the 50th anniversary of the end of the Japanese occupation of Penang. His narration offers little in the way of criticism or regret or judgement, despite some horrific cruelty and barbarity and acts of extreme generosity and humanity.

I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me.

This was back in a time when I did not believe in fortune-tellers, when the world was not yet filled with wonder and mystery. I cannot recall her appearance now, the woman who read my face and touched the lines on my palms. She said what she was put into the world to say, to those for whom her prophesies were meant, and then, like every one of us, she left.

I know her words had truth in them, for it always seemed to be raining in my youth. There were days of cloudless skies and unforgiving heat, but the one impression that remains now is of rain, falling from a bank of low floating clouds, smearing the landscape into a Chinese brush painting. Sometimes it rained so often I wondered why the colours around me never faded, were never washed away, leaving the world in mouldy hues. (13)

146 Gift rain coverThese are the opening paragraphs, setting up the expectation of change and wisdom from an older man’s perspective. There is a warning as well of the narrator’s acceptance of the relentless and unforgiving aspects of life’s events. Fate perhaps. The lofty and detached voice will come to relate some of life’s hardest suffering and challenges.

Philip Hutton grows up as a mixed race (English/Chinese) boy within an English family in Penang, Malaya in the late ‘30s. The tension between his dual ethnic heritages within his family is further heightened by his affiliation to the Japanese envoy, Endo-San, who takes him under his wing and teaches him the Japanese way. By the time of the Japanese invasion we have read of Philip’s experience of Japanese refinement and culture, the ethic of respect and loyalty and the skills of martial arts. He is drawn into these through his sensai.

It is clear to the reader, but not to Philip, that Endo-San while genuinely drawn to the young man is also exploiting Philip for his knowledge about the island to assist the invasion of Penang in December 1941. He has his own reasons for this betrayal. During the occupation Philip feeling guilty for all the information he gave his master, and in return for protection for his family, volunteers to join the Japanese occupier. His best friend joins the resistance. Again we read of the ambiguity and tension in Philip’s engagement with the occupying forces and his loyalty to his father, as well as to Endo-San. It is not a tension that the young man manages with ease.

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Penang. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Penang. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org

The Japanese were defeated, but not before they had stretched the loyalties and tensions between the Malay, British and Chinese communities, brutally removed any opposition and implicated Philip in some of their worst transgressions. We are continually invited to ask what options lay open to Philip, and once committed to one line of action how could he do the best according to his conflicting codes. Even fifty years later Philip’s reputation is mixed among the inhabitants of Penang, for he had been complicit in acts of atrocity in order to save some people.

The Japanese are also represented as conflicted. They are cultured, refined and very focused on economic and military domination of the Far East. Yet some of the most principled characters are Japanese. And it is made clear that many Japanese suffered from the war, not least the military personnel, and that some suffered for many lingering years to come. Philip’s visitor was the former lover of Endo-San, and she is dying from radiation sickness from one of the atomic explosions, Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

This is carefully plotted novel, and very long. We are presented with the backstories of many characters, revealing varied cultural customs and beliefs and their strengths and flaws when these customs are tested in the extreme conditions of war. We find many themes here: ambivalence, contradictions, nuance, uncertainty, divided loyalties, imperfect understanding, pride, face and cruelty.

The descriptions are rich, like the action. Here is Philip meeting Endo-San on the beach one evening.

I went down to the beach late. It was a timeless moment of the day, the sand still wet and silky from a downpour that had occurred earlier. Dark clouds were racing away inland, leaving the seaward sky clear. The moon was already out, a pale companion to the sun that was setting reluctantly.

Birds flew low along the surface, while some pecked on the beach for the almost invisible baby ghost crabs. I could not see them as the scuttled across the beach, only the tracks they left behind them, marking the sand like writing etched by a ghostly hand.

It was quite chilly, the wind carrying a trace of the rain that now fell almost as unseen as the baby crabs, as thought the clouds had been scraped through a fine grater. I solitary figure stood staring out to sea as waves unrolled themselves around his feet like small bundles of silk. I walked up to him, feeling the coldness of the water. (307)

An editor should have removed nearly all uses of ‘almost’ (twice in that passage). Almost is a writer’s weasel word I think – was it invisible or not, unseen or not? I’m not a fan of tightening jaws either, and there are lots of those. But these are very small gripes in the face of the overall achievement of this novel.

Tan Twan Eng (2007) The Gift of Rain published by Myrmidon 508 pp

 

Links to other reviews:

Sam Jordison reviewed it in the Guardian for the Booker Prize Club. He had some editorial comments but thought it an excellent first book.

And the blogger dovegreyreader scribbles enjoyed it too and had some questions for Tan Twan Eng, to which he replied. Here’s the post.

 

Any thoughts about this novel? Have you read it? Do you intend to read it? What have you heard about it?

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Interview with author, Roger King

How do writers decide to become writers? Especially when they get very little encouragement? And when they have exciting and worthwhile jobs doing other things? I only know one published author well enough to ask these questions, Roger King, whose most recent book is just out in paperback: Love and Fatigue in America. So here is another first for Bookword: after the guest blog an interview with a published author.

99 RogerI met Roger in the summer of 1983 when he had just published his first novel, Horizontal Hotel. We have been friends ever since, despite living in close proximity in West London (he could see into my garden), his move to the US, and meeting infrequently, usually in the British Museum. We always spend some time talking about books and writing. I am grateful to Roger for introducing me to the novels of Shirley Hazzard, especially The Great Fire. Definitely a recommended read.

I interviewed Roger and found out stuff I didn’t know despite 31 years of friendship and reading all his books. We had been on a damp tour of sailing berths and the coast in South Devon – Salcombe, Slapton Sands and a break in Dartmouth. The interview took place in a deserted Dartmouth tea room.

How did you get into writing?

I always wanted to be a writer. I was a sickly child at the age of 8-10, and conceived a project to capture what it was like to be a child before I was too old to remember. I was convinced that grown-ups were unable to imagine what it was like to be a child, and that in a few years I would also be unable to. I never wrote it. But I retained the idea of life being too valuable to be lived just once, that it warranted being turned over, digested and recreated in some new form – the considered, treasured life. I held onto that.

When I first met you, you were also working as an international development consultant with the UN.

I secretly always planned to be a novelist, despite first studying food science and then going on to a masters and a PhD in agricultural economics. It was a long detour that led through work in twenty countries. It did give me something to write about. When I finally started to write seriously, without any background in literature or the arts, I felt encouraged by such American writers as Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac, who drew on direct experience and were not intimidated by literary authority.

Who encouraged you?

No one encouraged me. Everyone thought it was a stupid idea. At school I scored high marks in creative writing but poorly in spelling and punctuation, so I came out mediocre. At thirteen we had to choose between arts and sciences and science was the practical choice. My father worked in a factory and my family saw education as a route to finding a respectable, secure job not self-expression.

At twenty-two I went to study in America and met a friend who was studying for a PhD in literature. She gave me a reading list of all the writers I should had read – I still have it. It was all self-taught. I started reading seriously but after forty years I am still filling in some embarrassing gaps in my literary education – though somehow I got away with teaching postgraduate English literature along the way.

At the UN, working in agricultural economics, international development and working to alleviate rural poverty, the people I knew thought writing fiction was trivial – decadent – in comparison with the work we were doing. I thought it could express a fuller, more complex truth. The jury is still out.

In my thirties I made a key choice by turning down a post heading a UN project at Oxford University – my perfect job in terms of my first career. After agonising, I chose instead to rent a cheap room and write my first novel. I then sent the manuscript off and went to work in Bangladesh and Sierra Leone. It was accepted by Diana Athill at Andre Deutsch. I didn’t know until my return. She was surprised not to have heard from me for months after the book was accepted.

Up to that time I was completely naïve about being a writer. I was 35 and had never met anyone who worked in publishing, or any published writers. I had no idea of whether I was any good, or how difficult it could be to make a career. It was beginners luck – it’s never been that simple again.99 photo cover

What are you most proud of in your writing?

I am most proud of having persisted. And of trying to do something new and thoughtful with each new book. I like to think there is more to be discovered for readers who spend more time with the books. I’m interested in doing more than just writing stories.

What are you most disappointed by?

99 Love & FThat it has taken so long to write five books, especially the slow progress of the last 20 years. [Readers of Roger’s most recently published book, Love and Fatigue in America, will be aware that he has been living with a severe form of ME in the last two decades. This book is described as autobiographical fiction on its cover.]

Sea Level is probably my favourite book, adventurous in form and written partly in poetic prose. It was an intuitive and a cogent way of writing, and tough to make it work, that is make it compelling and enjoyable. It requires the reader to read in imaginative ways, and not be led into the book simply by the linear logic of plot.

Since you have been based in America, you have frequently spent time in artists’ colonies. What do you get out of them?

They are a godsend to all artists. For a time, they take away all distractions and all other responsibilities and allow you to go deeply into your work. Everyone there is an artist and everyone is working. It is in the air that art is significant and important – away from the world where art can be seen as a marginal diversion.

Colonies put you in touch with people in other arts, which feeds into one’s own work.

It’s a mainly an American thing, not so much in the UK. But they are now proliferating around the world. Artists colonies have been essential to me because ME leaves me with scarce energy and at colonies any energy I have can go into work.

What about creative writing course? Can creative writing be taught?

Creative writing courses are a good way to step away from contingent life and be with like-minded people for a time. But there is a limit to what can be taught – and little to be gained without the writer starting out with an original voice and an original way of seeing the world. You can’t teach people that; that’s in the soul. There’s a danger of producing a multitude of irreproachably competent professionals with nothing much to say.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have just completed the first full draft of a new novel. It is the opposite of autobiographical, being fully imagined and researched. It has to do with memory and violence. It traces the widening rings of effect from cold war violence in Latin America and Asia and how it’s internalised in the personal lives of three people in the present day.

Recommended recent reads?

  • I enjoyed Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, that leads from a life much like her own on a remote Canadian island to the interior life of a pacifist Japanese Kamikaze pilot in WWII. [I loved this too: see my review on this blog.]
  • Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man, has gentrifying outsiders inadvertently opening the recent wounds of war in Croatia.
  • J.M. Coetzee’s, fascinating and unsettling Childhood of Jesus, brings a queasy humanity to religious fable.
  • I enjoyed the light-footed wit and originality of Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal, as much as I was irritated by her more showy and overstuffed The Luminaries.
  • Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was also well stuffed, but a compelling pleasure.
  • James Salter’s All That Is is the work of the mature master.

99 Rogers pile

Roger’s published books:

  • Horizontal Hotel(1983)
  • Written on a Stranger’s Map(1987)
  • Sea Level(1992)
  • A Girl from Zanzibar(2002)
  • Love and Fatigue in America(2012) The link to the facebook page for this book is here. His web site is www.rogerking.org

 

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