The Gift of Rain
Tan Twan Eng
“To have memories, happy or sorrowful, is a blessing, for it shows we have lived our lives without reservation.”
The Gift of Rain is a haunting portrayal of the past – the world that has disappeared but still lives in the traces around us. At its center lie complex emotions like love, guilt, and nostalgia weaving layers of storytelling that catch and hold the reader.
Built around a master- disciple relationship, Tan’s novel captures Malaysia’s racial complications on the eve of second world war in great detail. At the center of this story is Phillip Hutton – a half-Chinese son of a British businessman in Penang, living with his English half siblings, at once an outsider in the colonial household. In the absence of the family which has gone to visit London, the lonely youngster discovers a new friend, a Japanese aikijutsu master, Endosan – a relationship that spell dooms not only for Phillip and Endosan but also for the beautiful island of Penang. As Phillip takes Endosan around the island, revealing all its little secrets, the Japanese army cements its plans for Dec 8, 1941 when it would take over Malaya, unleashing a trail of death and destruction. Full of guilt, Phillip watches his beloved town being brutalized and signs a pact with the devil – to save his family.
A story of internal conflict and divided loyalties is told in a flashback as Phillip, the only survivor of the past tell his story to Michiko, a visitor from Endosan’s Japan. Around him is the new Penang that still bears the scars of the war.
Tan draws the characters with a loving precision, never wavering from exposing the grayness around them. Phillip dilemmas and his understated heroism are beautifully captured. But the most breathtaking character in the novel is Penang itself – the vibrant island that the was loved by the British, brutalized by the Japanese and then rebuilt after the war. Though Tan, in the author’s note admits to historical inaccuracies, he does manage to capture the slice of history during the war years. The British betrayal, fearsome Japanese camps, the Sook Ching massacre – the book is a window to the past that would soon be confined to history books. The Gift of Rain is a wonderful book that makes those memories your memories.