Penang, 1939. Sixteen-year-old Philip Hutton is a loner. Half English, half Chinese and feeling neither, he discovers a sense of belonging in an unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat. Philip shows his new friend around his adored island of Penang, and in return Endo trains him in the art and discipline of aikido. But such knowledge comes at a terrible price. The enigmatic Endo is bound by disciplines of his own and when the Japanese invade Malaya, threatening to destroy Philip’s family and everything he loves, he realises that his trusted sensei – to whom he owes absolute loyalty – has been harbouring a devastating secret.Philip must risk everything in an attempt to save those he has placed in mortal danger and discover who and what he really is. With masterful and gorgeous narrative, replete with exotic and captivating images, sounds and aromas – of rain swept beaches, magical mountain temples, pungent spice warehouses, opulent colonial ballrooms and fetid and forbidding rainforests – Tan Twan Eng weaves a haunting and unforgettable story of betrayal, barbaric cruelty, steadfast courage and enduring love.
The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng is a story set in Malaya in World War Two told through the eyes of Philip Hutton, a young man who feels like an outsider in his own family.
There are many aspects of this wonderful book (Nominee for the Man Booker Prize Longlist 2007) that I really enjoyed:
The main protagonist Philip doesn’t feel that he belongs in either culture, being half Chinese with a Chinese mother, Khoo Ui Lian, and a British father. His Grandather Khoo is estranged from the family too. In time his grandfather takes Philip to the Leong San Thong Dragon Mountain Hall temple built by the clan association of the Khoo. His grandfather accuses Philip of “the great human capacity for choosing not to see.” He predicts that his choices will never be the completely correct ones,” and “That is your tragedy.” But growing up of mixed parentage, “that is your strength.” I related to this in some ways, as I am also of mixed parentage, my father is Scottish and my mother is a Eurasian from Malaysia.
Philip is not close to his siblings Edward, William and Isabel therefore it is not altogether surprising that he is attracted to a Japanese man, Endosan, an outsider, who appears to be so powerful that he says: “Now you will always remember me as the man who taught you to touch heaven.”
The references to martial arts – Under the influence of Endosan’s (Mr Hayato Endo) tutelage in Aikijitsu, Philip becomes very close to him, so much so that he trusts him with details that maybe he should not. He must make one of two horrendously difficult choices either to work with or against the Japanese during the occupation of Malaya.
It is a novel about choices and consequences, Philip takes a different path from his friend Kon, even though they started off on a similar route both learning Japanese martial arts. Ultimately, the choices that the two young men make lead them in conflicting directions. Even though Philip isn’t close to his family he does want to protect them and his father’s business from harm. But, his good intentions do not have the desired effect, in fact his ploy seems to work against him in many ways, destroying lives, and making the divide between himself and his father and sister much greater. Later he tries to make amends, fearful for his life and his family’s life after witnessing the terrible atrocities carried out in the Kempeitai cleansing campaign.
The Gift of Rain acts as a confessional told through the perspective of an aging Philip confessing his life story to an elderly sick Japanese woman who has appeared at his doorstep unannounced. Both Michiko and Philip share a love for Mr Hayato Endo, and therefore Philip feels comfortable sharing this story with her, as he believes she if anyone will understand why he chose the path that he did. There is a sense in the story of everything in life being connected, a continuum of many lives in which Philip will meet Endosan again and again.
Tan Twan Eng weaves a tale of dreadful cruelty entwined with cultural niceties that breathes life into the story, one only has to experience Goro’s cruelty with the piano playing episode in the book to see this strange partnership in action.
Tan Twan Eng uses the themes of delicate butterflies and fireflies, and a family portrait taken before Philip’s brother goes off to fight to suggest the fragility, and wonder of life. At a particularly sad, and heart-wrenching point in The Gift of Rain, we are told that: “I never saw any butterflies.”
It questions what we consider to be fair and just in a war. It is a world in which the family chauffeur will eventually feel justified in betraying a member of the family, as he considers that: “This is justice.”
There is a sense that those pre-war days were magical and life cannot ever be the same again: “But those were magical days just before the threads that bound the world became unravelled. ”
I love the fortune teller aspect of the novel, and the concept of the gift of rain. The fortune teller in the Temple of Azure Cloud told Philip: “You were born with the gift of rain. Your life will be abundant with wealth and success. But life will test you greatly. remember – rain also brings the flood.” She also says: of Endo-san: ‘He’s a Jipunakui – a Japanese ghost. I do not read their futures. Beware of him.”
I love that it is set in Malaysia. Particularly at this time in history as I have heard stories from my mother passed down from her family about Malaya during the Japanese occupation. Tan Twang Eng depicts the setting so wonderfully that you just feel as if you are there and it does make you wonder what would you would have been prepared to do to keep your family safe if you were in Malaya at that time.
So a thoughtful novel which I really enjoyed from start to finish. I would highly recommend it to readers who enjoy Historical fiction, Cultural, War, and Asian literature.
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Bye for now.
Marje @ Kyrosmagica xx
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