Book review: The Gift of Rain

Tan Twan EngIf you are searching for another world in which to immerse yourself, then this novel will fit the requirement. The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng will suit anyone interested in the Malay Peninsula and its history in World War Two. It is at times tender, brutal, harsh and uplifting. It is a story of love, family, war, of defeat and acceptance.

The story opens as Philip Hutton, an elderly man living in a stately house on Penang, an island off the west coast of Malaysia. To his door comes an elderly, frail Japanese woman. They have never met before, but know one person who made an impact on their lives. Endo-san, a Japanese man, once lived on a tiny island near Istana, the Hutton family home. The Gift of Rain is the story of the relationship between Endo-san, a master, sensei, of aikijutsu, and his teenage pupil Philip immediately preceding the Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1941 and the following years of occupation.

There are many subtle layers to this tale which left me moved and thirsty for more facts about this period of history. It poses many difficult questions. Like the best novels dealing with war, it challenges you to be honest: what would I have done? It is easy to over-simplify war into ‘them and us’, ‘right and wrong’. At the heart of the story is the island of Penang and the transition of Georgetown, its major town, from a pre-war bustling multi-cultural port to an occupied territory at the mercy of torture and abuse by the Japanese. Some of it is difficult reading, all the more as the place seems alive. The traditions, the cultures, the nature are described vividly. The mix of nationalities on the island is at once its strength but, when war arrives, provide the cracks exploited by the occupiers. Philip is the youngest son of his father with his second wife, a Chinese woman. His two half-brothers and half-sister are English. Philip’s full name is Philip Arminius Choo-Hutton. This mix of races causes tensions, suspicion and betrayal throughout his life.

The Gift of Rain was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, about the period in Penang shortly after the end of World War Two, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012.

If you like this, try:-
‘The Translation of Love’ by Lynne Kutsukake
‘Moon Tiger’ by Penelope Lively
‘Exposure’ by Helen Dunmore

‘The Gift of Rain’ by Tan Twan Eng [UK: Myrmidon Books] Buy at Amazon

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