Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Gift of Rain, by Tan Twan Eng

Another book that I read at the behest of my book group, but it was one I had heard some good things about before, so I was looking forward to reading it. Set on the island of Penang, which lies off the west coast of Malaysia and is one of its states, it takes place in the days building up to WWII, and continues through that war's unfolding. The narrator, Philip Hutton, is the scion of a successful British trading company in Penang who has just about the world at his fingertips, but for one thing. Half of his ancestry is Chinese. The only child of  a short second marriage, Philip lives his life on the fringes of his father's already well-established first family, finding it easier to live as a loner than to figure out his place in the familial scheme of things.

With the rest of the family away in England, a trip he wasn't interested in making himself, Philip is left to his own wiles, until one day, an older Japanese man approaches him, asking him for the use of a boat. Thus begins Philip's relationship with Endo-san, his sensei in more than just martial arts. In another culture, he might be termed Philip's guru, the link being a devotional one as well as educational. 

Of course, the Pacific War is looming, as we know, but Philip does not, and so, all bets are off.

There is plenty to like about this ambitious first novel, not least the skillful way in which Tan Twan Eng intertwines the plights of at least three cultures, and the extent to which he does this impartially. He also very successfully renders Penang and various other parts of Malaysia, and, as I visited the region for a short time many years ago, there was a nostalgic pull as well. If in some ways the novel is about Philip's quest to find balance between the various elements of his life, the book also helped me balance my own memories of my trip there. And of course it reminded me of what a fascinating place Penang is, with its mix of many cultures somehow co-existing more or less peacefully. Of course, I don't know what it is like now.

There were a few things that I felt to be weaknesses in the overall architecture of the book. I thought that the recounting of that distant time from an era more like the present kept me feeling a little more detached than I would have felt if he had just served up the story cold. Eng created a frame that I am not entirely sure needed to be there.

There is also a heavy dose of belief in past lives that I didn't think quite worked. It's not that it didn't have its place in the story, but I think that some of the plot points depended a little too much on the conviction certain of the characters felt about it.

Finally, I think the end of the war story was just a bit out of sync with the leisurely pace of the beginning of the novel. I can't really say that everyone would have the same reaction--after all, there is a war on, and everything gets racheted up by definition. Still, there was a slight feeling of changing genres.

On balance, though, these quibbles don't count for so much. I found so many things to like about this book, including the two main characters. I think there are probably not many people who actually could have written this novel and we are very lucky that there was a talented writer who was willing to find a way to do it.         

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