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.
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)
These 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.
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?