Pros: Utterly beautiful and heartbreaking
Cons: Not for everyone
Rating: 5 out of 5
I have a phobia of history. This is probably a result of the way my teachers taught it: purely as an exercise in memorizing names, places, and dates (something to which I am particularly ill-suited). I’m aware that history can be far more interesting than that, particularly when it’s viewed as story, but I can’t bring myself to seek it out purposefully. Thus, I’m grateful that when I requested a different book from Myrmidon Books to review, they saw fit to include Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain as well. I never would have sought it out to read on my own.
As those who follow my personal blog, Errant Thoughts, might be aware, I’ve been working on this book since sometime in October. I’ve finished a handful of other books while reading it, and particularly near the beginning I tended to put it down a lot. Normally that would result in a review that contained some element of “it started off too slowly” or, “it’s beautiful but it failed to capture me” or, “the pacing was off.” Not this time, however. Instead, the fault is mine—that phobia of history, and my own tendency to prefer action-oriented novels. Even as I experienced difficulty keeping focused on the narrative early on, I recognized that it was incredibly lovely and masterful.
The Gift of Rain introduces us to Philip Hutton, a half-British half-Chinese teenaged son of a wealthy British businessman. His family lives in Penang, Malaya, in 1939. As long as he can remember he’s been bullied and ostracized for being a half-breed, and when a Japanese diplomat offers him friendship and instruction in Aikido, it seems that he’s finally found his way. Even as the Japanese armies advance through China and people begin to whisper behind Philip’s back, he’s determined not to allow that to stand in the way of the best thing that’s ever happened to him. He learns to protect himself and his family, and in return shows his sensei around his beloved Penang.
As much as he wishes to believe it can’t happen, however, the Japanese soon arrive in Malaya, and the people Philip cares most about are pitted against each other. He tries to find his own way between the two paths he sees open before him, but as he watches everything he loves fall to pieces around him, he has to wonder whether he made the right choice—and if not, how to set things right.
This is not an ‘easy’ book to read. While it isn’t unnecessarily graphic, it takes place during a time and place of great bloodshed and brutality. It’s tragic and heartbreaking, as nearly any historical novel about war is likely to be, but it’s also incredibly beautiful. Tan Twan Eng writes with grace and heart, never taking the easy way out for himself or his characters, and the people and settings come alive at his touch.
While I can’t speak to its historical accuracy (that history-phobia has lead to an embarrassing lack of historical knowledge on my part), the author concludes with a brief note detailing some of the licenses he has taken with history; all of them, to my mind, seemed to be appropriate to the tale he told.
The pacing is utterly perfect. The pre-war beginning feels timeless. At the height of Philip’s involvement in the war, events become choppy, characters sometimes arriving and then disappearing over the course of pages. Pacing that in many novels would feel wrong is utterly right for the subject at hand.
I want to say so much more about this book, about Philip Hutton and Hayato Endo’s complex relationship, one that spans multiple lifetimes. About the unique family that surrounds Philip and his place in it. But I wouldn’t know where to begin, and I wouldn’t be able to do justice to it. So you’ll just have to read it for yourself.