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.