Once I started reading The Gift of Rain I could not put down. For two days I was lost in the amazing world of the people of Malaya in a sad and terrible time in their history on the island of Penang off the west coast of what is now peninsular Malaysia. After putting the book down, the story haunted me so much that I read it a second time.
Let me say first of all that the Gift of Rain is a great, easy and thoroughly entertaining read from its very beginning when deep in the night an elderly Japanese lady brings a sword to the front door of an elderly man who has been trying for 50 years to come to terms with his terrible past.
Like so many great novels this book refuses to be categorized; it has elements of a historical novel, a coming of age story, a war novel, a treatise on martial arts. Martial arts go to the root of Asian philosophy: Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism are all in the book. Predestination versus free will is one of the book's most important themes. The protagonist Philip Hutton's character is shaped by his struggles at a time of war to balance his duty and his loyalty to his father, his family, his country and the enemy in the form of his beloved martial arts teacher, his sensei, Hayato Endo.
The narrative begins as a reflective and beautifully written coming of age story when the sixteen year old, half Chinese boy, Philip Hutton meets the enigmatic Japanese diplomat Endo-san, who becomes his martial arts master and starts him off on an incredibly exciting but unbearably sad voyage of conflict and self discovery.
When the Japanese invade Malaya the tone and style of the book change. The book turns into a fast moving war story. But war destroys and the war has devastating effects on the lives of all the complex main characters.
Tan Twan Eng has an uncanny ability to create atmosphere. He does this partly through an appeal to the reader's senses. And how he succeeds! All the senses are there. Touch, taste and sight. Sound: from the voice of Sutherland to the "mournful wails" of the erhu. Smell; from the smells of food, rooms, clothes, streets, rain, the sea to the fragrance of a lonely tree. For Tan Twan Eng fragrance fuses into a "pungent concoction that (enters) us and (lodges) itself in the memory of the heart".
It has become fashionable for reviewers (and academics) to require of modern works of literature that they move boundaries. Too often this results in writers resorting to all sorts of gimmicks to give the patina of a literary work to their writing. Tan Twan Eng uses no gimmicks. His is simply an exceptionally well written book. But he does move boundaries: he moves the boundaries of our hearts.
A marvelously good book that I thoroughly recommend.