Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #96: The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
This nominee for the Man Booker Prize is a gorgeously-written historical novel taking place during the period immediately before, during and after World War II. The action centers on the Malaysian island of Penang, and is the story—told in flashback—of 16-year-old Phillip Hutton, the motherless half-Chinese, half-British son of a wealthy trading family who has felt alienated from the Chinese, the British and his own family for most of his young life, and is taken under the wing of a Japanese sensei who rents property from his father. Not only does Phillip become a master in the discipline of aikido, but he also acquires Japanese, philosophy, culture, and a loving substitute for his cool father.
Phillip spends happy days showing his new friend and teacher Endo-san all that is unique and beautiful about his island home, from the mansions of the wealthy but ethnically-divided neighborhoods and poor farming villages to the rough coasts, beautiful mountains and dense rainforests. He reveals to Endo-san many of the secrets of his beloved Penang… And then everything goes wrong. First, the Japanese imperial army invades and ravages China, and then turns on Malaysia. Phillip is urged by family and friends to end his friendship with Endo-san, but ignores the warnings. Phillip’s elder half-brother is killed in a British naval battle with the invading Japanese, and those who can evacuate Penang do so on the eve of the Japanese occupation. Phillip’s father, however refuses to abandon his home and his factory, and as the Japanese occupy Penang and begin to systematically terrorize, kill or imprison anyone who won’t pay obeisance to the Japanese Emperor, Phillip realizes that his beloved Endo-san was also a Japanese spy using him to gain access to the island for the invading forces.
Making the ultimate sacrifice, the rapidly-maturing Phillip goes to work for the Japanese occupation forces directly under deputy-consul Endo-san, in exchange for his sensei‘s pledge to keep his family safe. Phillip becomes a despised “running dog” for the Japanese and his life becomes hell as he is hated by all and trusted by neither side. The novel moves very quickly at this point, as author Eng ramps up the tension, and his relationships with both Endo-san and his own father and sister change dramatically. These are scenes of horrible brutality and mass murder. There are also moments of almost mysterical reverie in the novel as Phillip goes through near-religious transformations, and the belief that Phillip and Endo-san were fated to meet, and love, and lose each other over and over again in multiple lives, becomes an anchor for the story.
The Gift of Rain is a fascinating bit of history, as well as a beautiful and tragic tale of honor, loyalty, and betrayal. Along the way, we get fascinating glimpses into the traditions and philosophies of the East, itself undergoing transformation under colonial rule, first through the British and then the Japanese.