Tan Twan Eng has gifted us with a beautifully crafted historical novel set on the island of Penang off the western coast of the Malayan peninsular in the years preceding and through World War Two and the Japanese invasion. Philip Hutton’s family on his father’s side has been an institution on the island since the early days of settlement by the English, while his mother is the estranged daughter of a wealthy Chinese family. Philip is 16 when war breaks out. Apart from his friendship with a Chinese boy his age and the ever-increasing intimacy of his relationship with his Japanese sensei who teaches him Aikido, he had always been a loner, not quite fitting in with either side of his family, his difference too obvious. In Philip’s words:
That was my burden – I looked too foreign for the Chinese, and too Oriental for the Europeans. I was not the only one – there was a whole society of so-called Eurasians in Malaya – but even then I felt I would not belong among them. I felt as Endo-san and the Japanese people here must feel: they were hated by the locals as well as by the British and Americans, for their exploits in China were now becoming daily topics of debate from the street peddlers to the Europeans drinking their ice-cold gin in the Spotted Dog.
Despite the depredations of the Japanese, Philip is able to recognise a deeper aspect of their culture:
Yet I had seen another side of them – I had seen the fragile beauty of their way of life, their appreciation of the sorrowful, transient aspects of nature, of life itself. Surely such sensitivities should count?
The author paints a vivid picture of the land and evokes a strong sense of the period and the interactions of the diverse cultures in the pot pourri that is Asia as history unfolds around Philip, forcing him to make tough decisions. How do you face someone you love who has betrayed you? How do you live with yourself when you are seen as the betrayer? Just how far will you go to protect your family and your friends? And what do you have at the end of your life apart from your memories? After a particularly gruesome event during the war, Philip reflects on his position:
I led the darkened procession with only some hurricane lamps to light our way. Anger and sorrow walked with me, joining hands with guilt – the three walls of my prison.
While the Japanese had not physically imprisoned him, Philip’s relationship with the invaders had led to his being surrounded by the barbed wire of his own tumultuous feelings from which there was no escape.
The Gift of Rain was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2007 and is a great historical novel in that it fulfils all the requirements of the genre, transporting the reader back in time to a little-known part of the world where we discover and learn about the people, their culture, their hopes and desires, and come away with a sense of having gained in knowledge.