Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

The Gift of Rain is set in Malaysia with most of the events taking place before and during World War II. Phillip Hutton is the youngest of four children in a wealthy British family living on the island of Penang. He feels somewhat estranged from his family as the only child born of his father’s second wife, who was Chinese. His father and the three oldest children head to England for their every fifth year trip while Phillip stays in Malaysia. It is during this time in 1939 that he meets Hayato Endo, a Japanese man who is renting a small island from the Hutton family.

Phillip’s friendship with Endo-san sets in motion a number of events that impact his family, Penang, and, according to this story, the Japanese occupation of Malaysia. The author does a remarkable job at getting across the complexity of Phillip’s being an heir to a British company, his connections to the Chinese community through his mother’s family, and his friendship with a man whose country is attacking his. Here Phillip begins to think about how Endo-san has impacted his life on the morning after Japanese troops land on Malaysian soil: “He had linked me to the war, to Japan’s ambitions, and this realization weighed me down as though I had been burdened with another identity, taken deep down to the floor of the ocean.”

The story does have a mystical part to it. Phillip shows Endo-san around Penang and they interact with a fortune-teller who tells them, “‘You and your friend have a past together, in a different time. And you have a greater journey to make. After this life.’” This and some other scenes add a somewhat surreal element at times, but also make some of both Phillip’s and Endo-san’s actions more believable. And, I wonder if it works better with a reader that believes in past lives.

The book reminded me of A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute, primarily as that was set partially in Malaysia and involved a death march under the Japanese army across the country. I’d like to read more stories set in Malaysia at this time (or any other), but told from a Malaysia person’s point-of-view. The Gift of Rain gets across the Chinese and British views of the Japanese occupation, but not the Malaysian. However, it is a remarkable book that examines complex interactions during a difficult time.

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