Tan Twan Eng: The Gift of Rain

The first remarkable thing about Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain is that although it’s published by a small press, Myrmidon Books, it doesn’t look terrible.  The hardback I read is a handsomely produced volume, every bit the equal of the better sort of mainstream publisher.  The second remarkable thing is that this debut novel, from a publisher which put out its first book less than a year ago, in October 2006, has been longlisted for the Booker Prize: which must be some sort of record.  In fact, as it’s a very good book indeed, that’s not remarkable at all.

If I say “a gripping tale of betrayal and duty in life during wartime,” you will probably think of some dreary black and white film on BBC2 on Saturday afternoon.  But this is precisely what The Gift of Rain is, and to be put off by the description would be to miss out on a very great treat.  It is an epic, operatic story of a young man’s long and winding road to determine to whom he owes the greater duty: those he was born to know and love, or those he has grown to know and respect.

Philip Hutton is a sixteen-year-old boy, half English and half Chinese – “a child born between two worlds, belonging to neither” – who lives in Malaya (as the peninsular part of Malaysia was then called under British rule) in the 1930s.  His father runs a successful business, and when the rest of his family are away in 1939, he meets Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat to whom his father has rented land.

Endo teaches Philip aikijutsu, “the art of harmonising forces,” and it’s to Eng’s credit that these sections don’t come across too wax-on-wax-off, though there is a full complement of deceptively powerful elderly gentlemen.  Philip becomes devoted to Endo, his sensei: “I opened myself up to him as clouds open up to the sun.” Through his teaching Philip achieves a sense of self never before experienced – “spirit expanded, mind unfurling open, heart in flight” – and all within settings of

the briny scent of the sea at low tide, mixed with the smell of the mudflats steaming in the sun … Chinese and Tamil dock coolies … shouting and pushing carts of smoked rubber sheets, tin ingots and bags of cloves and peppercorns.  Rickshaws clattered past, their wheels bouncing on uneven roads.

But this blissful existence is not to last for long, because when the Japanese invade Malaya, Philip must make a decision as to where his loyalties lie.  His choice will mark him and his people for generations: “Like the rain, I had brought tragedy into many people’s lives, but, more often than not, rain also brings relief, clarity and renewal.”

The Gift of Rain, with its leisurely time-scale and Shakespearean body count, is one of those immersive novels which creates its own world and drags you willingly in.  Be warned though that it is a biggie: while it is never obscure, it does demand attention, and if like me you find your interest flagging at one or more of the historical and life stories recounted in detail in the second quarter of the book, be assured that it will all be worth it in the end.  Tan too, like Ishiguro or Peter Ho Davies – perhaps it is a trait – has the ability to despatch great emotional turmoil in calm and measured prose, a sort of flipside of “the stillness within movement that all living things possess” … as we aikijutsu students say.


  1. This is one of the longlist titles that I am most wary of. It just seems so epic, but I will persevere as you encourage.

    I dont know much about publishers, but if its anything like record labels its always great to see new small ones start, especially if they give chances to new authors who otherwise might be overlooked.

  2. Operatic, that’s the exact word. This was my very favorite book on the longlist and I’m so sorry it wasn’t shortlisted. I think it’s exquisite and I just love it.

  3. Yes, unfortunately it is opening onto a holding page for now, John. The site is currently being given a new look and several new features and should be back online in about two weeks.

    I very much enjoy reading your blog entries as it seems we have similar taste in books.

  4. As a frequent reader, you usually have a “sense” about a new book and author. My “sense” of “The Gift of Rain” is that it is not currently receiving the attention, mention, and respect it deserves. Through its 400 odd pages it drew me in and involved me emotionally in a manner that few books do. Thank you to Tan Twan Eng for enriching my reading experience
    and providing a very different perspective on WWII. I look forward to his next effort.

  5. My “sense” of “The Gift of Rain” is that it is not currently receiving the attention, mention, and respect it deserves.

    Very true, Richard, but then the books we could say that about are too many to list! (And I hope this blog goes some small way to correcting the imbalance in a few cases.)

    We can at least say that The Gift of Rain has had a good deal more attention, through its Booker longlisting, than it would have otherwise. (I certainly wouldn’t have read it.) Of course that was almost a year ago, and memories are short, and now that it’s come out in paperback, it has to fight on its own merits for attention and space. Perhaps Myrmidon could have brought out the paperback a little sooner to ride that wave.

  6. Hello John,

    Many thanks for your kind words about my novel. I appreciate the exposure you have given to it. It’s also out in the United States now. Have a look at the Weinstein Books’ website if you’ve time.

    Warmest regards,
    Twan Eng

  7. You’re welcome, Twan Eng, and thanks for visiting. It’s a fine novel and I hope it does well for you in the States too. I look forward to reading your next book.

  8. Readers of “The Gift of Rain,” Tan Twan Eng’s sweeping debut novel about the Japanese occupation of Malaya during World War II, may be reminded of the debate over free will and predestination in “Lawrence of Arabia” that neatly divides that film into halves: optimistic and somber.

    To attack the port of Aqaba from its undefended rear, Lawrence’s army circles through the desert. A soldier is lost in a sandstorm and Lawrence goes back for him, despite his Arab allies’ insistence that the man’s death from heat and thirst has already been “written.”

    Lawrence rescues the man and proclaims in the name of the rationalistic, self-willed West, “Nothing is written.” But when Aqaba is captured, the man is arrested for looting, and Lawrence has to shoot him. So was his death fated after all?

    Tan’s protagonist, Philip Hutton, seems freer than most to choose his destiny when, in 1939, at the age of 16, he meets Hayato Endo. Hutton is the son of a wealthy British trader on the island of Penang — off the west coast of Malaya — and the trader’s Chinese second wife.

    Steeped in two cultures but at home in neither, alienated from both sides of his family, he is fully accepted only by Endo, a Japanese diplomat who rents a small neighboring island from Hutton’s father.

  9. Hi John,

    I just finished this one myself, I found your opera remark useful (I credited it in my own writeup on my blog actually), as I thought it was very definitely an operatic rather than naturalistic work.

    Still, although I had some minor criticisms, I really enjoyed it and thought it a rewarding read. Total coincidence my finishing it on the same night as this year’s Booker winner was announced.

  10. Complimenti, un libro meraviglioso che ricorda il mio amore per l’akido. Mi piacerebbe leggere qualche altra cosa scritta da lei, e poterla conoscere nel caso venisse in Italia.Le scrivo da Salerno,Campania,Italia.Spero di vederla presto.
    con stima

  11. I have read the book as well and it became one of my favorites! I cried and laughed, I felt pain and joy, and I have grown to love the wonderful friendship between Philip and Endo-san, because it remains strong and untamed by the war’s horrors. I always wondered if I could have the strength to make the same sacrifices in order to keep my family and friends safe if anything happens.
    I can’t wait until Twan Eng’s next novel appears! I am sure it will be as good as his first! Or, why not, even better!

    Best regards from Romania,


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