Perhaps because as a teenager I took martial arts (GoJo Ryu karate) and, more recently, I have become a student of yoga (in particular Jnana yoga), I found “The Gift of Rain” by Tan Twan Eng to be a beautiful book. Longlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize, this is not a perfect book by any means, but it's an enigmatic one that will give the reader much to consider on each subsequent read.
Penang in 1939 is home to young Philip Hutton. A loner, the half-Chinese, half-English Philip feels he belongs to neither culture and finds an unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat and son of a former aristocratic Samurai family. A deep bond grows between the two, as Endo-san teaches Philip the art and discipline of aikido.
But the knowledge comes at a devastating price: Philip’s beloved sensei, to whom he owes absolute loyalty, is harbouring a terrible secret. As Philip – through his newly discovered aikido skills – begins to forge deep bonds with both his Chinese and his English family, the Japanese invade Malaysia and threaten everything Philip has come to know about love and loyalty.
“The Gift of Rain” captures the reader on several levels. With lyrical prose, haunting images, vivid sensory sketches and well-researched historical and geographical details, one experiences the contrasting reality of life in Penang before and after the Japanese invasion. But there is also a deeper, more profound quality to this novel in which all aspects – the characters, the settings, the narrative – explore the fundamental issue of what it is to be a unique human individual in an infinite universe that beholds an all-pervading Consciousness. Even as we are apart and different, we are one. All that separates us is the choices we make with our innate Free Will.
What is hard is also soft. What is circular is also straight. There are no easy answers to the profound philosophical questions Tan Twan Eng raises, but he has managed to create a novel of opposites that bridges both the secular and the spiritual worlds. Drawn along with the need to see how Philip resolves his personal struggles over the question of divided loyalties, betrayal and loss, the reader is also compelled to think deeply about the human condition and the sufferings we impose on ourselves and on others by the choices we make.
Any reservations I had about the novel were more because of my reading preferences than any limitations of the author. I prefer stories that do not have a lot of detail. There is an immense amount of minutely detailed description, which slowed the pace, particularly in the first half of the book. While the author’s skill in melodic metaphors is unquestioned, I would have preferred less of them. There were times when my imagination was overloaded with too many sights and smells and sounds.
These are, however, minor points and should not put one off reading “The Gift of Rain.” It is a story that leaves one melancholy and moved, complete and curious. And eager to begin reading it again.