Philip Hutton suffers from a particularly ancient prophecy; the snake seer forecast it before he was born. He will betray his family, ruin them. Nothing is fixed or permanent. It is the kind of weighty, well-worn opposition that tends to surface in martial arts sagas. And on the face of it, The Gift of Rain belongs to the genre: a tale of sensei and student that begins and ends with a couple of long, low bows.
Certain of the characters have known each other in previous incarnations, some have psychic visions.
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But beneath the tired philosophical current is another story, a gripping war epic about the Japanese invasion of Malaya. The half English, half Chinese lastborn son of a rich trading family, as lonely as he is confused, is schooled in the ways of the humble warrior. Philip Hutton meets his sensei , Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat and aikijutsu master, at sixteen. The adolescent boy spends the rest of the war trying to negotiate between loyalties to the Japanese and the resistance.
Loyalty to one party demands disloyalty to the other. At its most transfixing, The Gift of Rain is a chronicle of infidelity.
It is a book that reads much of the time like the transcript of a badly dubbed kung fu film. Too frequently, the sole purpose of character conversation is to tease out dry historical background. But The Gift Rain begins to move so urgently towards its midpoint that the words themselves drop out of focus. In its entirety the book calls to mind a portrait of Penang and the events of its capture that can only be called cinematic.
The language is awkward -- sometimes it feels as though the author is trying out terms he has only just learned -- but manages to be remarkably evocative.
The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
We see the Japanese propaganda pamphlets, floating towards the trees like white petals. We see the men and women of Malaya searching for sea creatures in the mud alongside greedy birds, lighting firecrackers at village weddings, digging their own graves. Its strength is large-scale. It is clear that Japan will invade Malaya. A year-old Philip, our narrator and a seamless adult adaptation of his younger self, mentions the crusade as early as the fifth page.
It is the mark of a fine storyteller, this ability to fabricate a terrifying suspense where there are no surprises. The high-flown martial arts scenes peter out. It means we cannot change anything.
In the bowels of war, the narrative becomes engrossingly barebones. Indeed, sometimes catastrophe and redemption are so intertwined that they can't be untangled.
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Eng's writing is beautiful and sensuous, whether he describes a temple full of slithering snakes, the smells of cooking food or the light of hundreds of fireflies caught in mosquito netting. Interestingly, The Gift of Rain also shares many of the qualities of a boy's adventure story. The most intense relationships are between men, there's no sex and no swearing and there's even a scene involving the threat of torture and a ticking time bomb that could have been plucked out of " The Gift of Rain is a splendidly written tale about the consequences of war and friendship.
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The character in question is Phillip Hutton, a half Chinese, half British native of Penang who, in his early seventies, is the lone resident of the mansion which has been in his family for generations. What precipitates the telling of his story, and simultaneously stirs him from years of self imposed solitude is the arrival of two entities, both of which are obliquely related to him by varying degrees of separation. The final impetus to his confronting the memories of that period though, is the result of a pair items innocuously presented as gifts; an old katana and a letter, written by Endo in , which had only recently reached Michiko prior to her meeting Phillip.
Thus begins a story in which the action, save for those occasional key intervals in the tale where both the elderly narrator and the reader might require a quick break to refresh themselves, principally occurs during those six years of the war. By the end of this novel I could feel his pain, loss and identify with his moments of anxiety and ambivalence in having to choose between his loyalty to friends and greater causes, which in his case, is defending his family and the country he called home. I could even empathize with the sense of grief and alienation he often experienced when, despite having the best of intentions, every completed action made him feel like he was being hurtled along the road to hell.
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There remain certain elements in the story however, which reminded me that although this is eloquently composed fiction, by a very capable writer, it is still a debut novel. My first grouse is with the coalescing of those parts which introduce Phillip in his teenage years. Another feature that I found equally double edged was the presentation of genders in this debut. Be it Phillip and Kon, a fellow student of aikido, training partner and friend, Phillip and his father Noel, Phillip and his grandfather, and the most profound, Phillip and Endo. The female relationships in Gift are thus often tenuous, strained, and too often the female member met a tragic end.
There are moments where I found that that the two talk and even act like a couple. Admittedly the author never has a physical consummation of this intimacy occur, seemingly content to have the two circle each other, bound by their duty to family, country and the tenets of aikido.
The Gift of Rain : A Novel
Eng is at his absolute best when illustrating his natural environment, and I recommend that future readers look out specifically for his description of a boat ride Phillip takes with Michiko to observe fireflies. He is also adept at capturing the capriciousness of the time, both for many of the key characters, and also that of the ordinary citizens, none of which is presented quite so well as the fate which befalls an elderly piano teacher.
Ultimately, I could see this work resonating with both those who have never had a father figure in their life, while making those who did, remember the pleasant and less pleasant moments of growing up. The colonial subject will identify with both the personal and national feelings of abandonment, especially at critical moments in the experiences. Just know that when the revelation arrives and you turn the final page, the denouement will feel, in a word, gifted.