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Friday, 1 February 2019

Book review: The Gift of Rain, Tan Twan Eng (2007)

I was severely hampered in my reading of this long novel by the fact that I had to go to hospital after reading about 15 percent of the whole. By the time I had gotten back home I had forgotten the details of the framing narrative that opens the book. I ended up reading about 17 percent of the book before giving up.

The novel has to do with a young boy named Philip Hutton whose mother had been Chinese and whose father is English. The family, which included three children by an earlier marriage, lives on the island of Penang in Malaysia. Before WWII but in the 1930s, a Japanese man named Endo comes to live on a small island that belongs to the family, the head of which runs a trading company. Endo-san is an adept practitioner of aikido and teaches young Philip the techniques but he is also evidently a kind of spy although Philip does not pick up on this fact. According to reports that I have read, Philip and Endo-san become romantically involved, although at the point where I gave up on the novel this plot device had not yet been deployed.

There is a bit too much reliance in this book on adjectives. I felt the language was sometimes unnecessarily flowery and ornate but at other times too plain to contain much art. The characterisation borders on cliché at times. There is one point where Philip admires Endo-san’s aristocratic bearing, which I thought was a bit hackneyed even given what happens later in the story. The notion that Japanese people are more refined than other people is hardly insightful, and is manifestly untrue, which you will understand if you spend any time actually living with Japanese people. There were stylistic echoes of Mishima in this novel which seemed to reinforce this kind of stereotyping.

Ideas about beauty and truth, about the relations between people, and about propriety here point to some sort of preference for an Asian aesthetic and moral grounding for the life Philip lives. There is the implication that Philip’s Malay upbringing, Japanese martial arts training, and Chinese heritage all converge at a single point inside the individual that is different in material ways from what a European would think and feel. A kind of Asian exceptionalism, if you will. I found these ideas suspect and found also that the art used by the author to build his case was a bit threadbare.

Then there’s the length. The scenes just go on and one endlessly, without much happening and without much insight into the minds of the secondary characters. Everything is filtered through Philip, who is, you start to feel, not entirely trustworthy as a narrator. But countervailing points of view are missing.

Finally there is the strange way that conversations are rendered, with inverted commas that are only stuck on at the beginning and at the end of sections of reported speech, rather than being repeated at the beginning of each separate paragraph in the segment. I couldn’t account for this odd type of orthography.

This is the author’s first novel. The second, published five years later, won the Man Asia Literary Prize.

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