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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Gift of Rain

Tan Twan Eng

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Gift of Rain

Title: The Gift of Rain
Author: Tan Twan Eng
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007
Length: 432 pages
Availability: The Gift of Rain - US
The Gift of Rain - UK
The Gift of Rain - Canada
The Gift of Rain - India
El don de la lluvia - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyable, panoramic novel, but too much of it almost insistently conventional

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Los Angeles times . 23/6/2008 Michael Harris
The NY Times Book Rev. . 13/7/2008 Alison McCulloch
The New Yorker . 26/5/2008 .
The Telegraph . 18/8/2007 Ed Lake
TLS . 22/6/2007 Su Lin Lewis

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) stately, even old-fashioned Western-style novel. For us, Tan's emphasis on fate saps interest from a book that, despite its lush descriptions, cross-cultural awareness and insight into the spirituality of aikido (...) has stilted dialogue and, in the wartime scenes, a weakness for pulpy melodrama." - Michael Harris, The Los Angeles times

  • "The novel’s Eastern flavor both sets it apart and sends it down a few blind alleys." - Alison McCulloch, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The wartime narrative is gripping, but Eng’s story suffers from stilted dialogue, which is often pressed into service for historical exposition, and overwrought fight scenes. More profoundly, the narrative’s gestures toward mythology and a philosophy of reincarnation feel like a distraction from the more compelling concerns of loyalty and loss." - The New Yorker

  • "All this is unexceptional thriller fare. What distinguishes The Gift of Rain is its wistful and surprisingly earnest supernaturalism. Its characters all seem to have met in previous lives, to be haunted by ancient prophecies, or to be cursed to turn into one another. The bittersweet mood is heightened by the chinoiserie of the metaphorical palette" - Ed Lake, The Telegraph

  • "The Gift of Rain is a war novel with a personal odyssey at its heart, one that complicates the stark lines of right and wrong during wartime. Tan Twan Eng exposes the way in which the complexities of collaboration and resistance, and the duties to one's country, are made more difficult by a mixed-race heritage and the demands of friendship. There are perhaps too many maudlin allusions to butterflies in the text, and the professions of love between Philip, his teacher, and his family could have been handled with more sophistication, but the storytelling makes up for this, drawing the reader into a web of divided loyalties. The Gift of Rain is a powerful first novel about a tumultuous and almost forgotten period of history." - Su Lin Lewis, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Gift of Rain is narrated by Philip Hutton, the youngest son of a successful English businessman who runs Hutton & Sons, established generations earlier in the then still English colony of Malaya, on the island of Penang. Philip is the offspring of a second marriage; unlike the first, this wife was Chinese, making him of mixed race -- and widely seen as not truly belonging to either. It leaves him something of an outcast ("The half-Chinese, youngest child in an English family ? I don't think I fit in anywhere at all.") -- but from the beginning he acknowledges having acted in a way during World War II that made him far more of an outcast, with bitter feelings lasting to this day (but also some appreciation for what he had done).
       The visit of a Japanese woman in the present day gets him to revisit those days, as she brings a letter from someone who had meant a lot to both of them decades earlier. "Fifty years I had waited to tell my tale", he says, and now he finally gets it all into the open.
       The man was Hayato Endo, and in 1939, when Philip was sixteen, his family leased a small island to Endo. Endo takes Philip under his wing, becoming his teacher (of the martial art aikijutsu, Japanese, and, eventually a few more things). Philip in turn shows him many of the local sites .....
       Many of the locals are suspicious of the growing Japanese presence, but it takes a while before the inevitability of war even on the Malay peninsula dawns on everyone. As to what Endo is up to: Philip can't believe his refined and charming friend can be lumped together with the Japanese occupiers in China -- or those that supposedly have designs on Malaya:

I'm quite certain that my 'Japanese friend' isn't 'one of them'. All those things you've heard are merely rumors.
       Yes, Philip is fairly naïve, and it's only when the Japanese are in control that he realises that he unwittingly provided much of the information that helped them take over. All those photographs Endo took, without ever wanting to be in the picture .....
       Philip believes that to keep his family safe he must collaborate with the Japanese, which is what he does, very publicly. It helps a bit, but wins him only the scorn of pretty much everyone (including his family). Of course, once he's compromised there's no escape, either: as one of the Japanese reminds him: "You are the most famous collaborator on the island. Do you think we will let you leave so easily ?"
       Philip witnesses horrendous outrages, and is helpless to do much. Eventually he does pass information to the locals and the resistance movement, but almost any attempts to save anyone come at high costs. For Philip the cost is only that his guilt weighs ever heavier on him: Endo-san is a powerful protector, and takes care that practically nothing happens to his ward. But others suffer greatly.
       The Japanese, of course, lose the war, but Philip remains in Penang, living with what he did, and what the locals think of him because of it. Many are grateful for the lives he did save, but others can not forgive him for his part in the many deaths he could not prevent.
       Moving back and forth between the present, where he is a melancholy, resigned old man, and the action-packed past with its impossible moral dilemmas, Tan unfolds a solid, rich tale of Malaysia. It's a bit over-full, and at times the progression of the war unfolds a bit too simply, but especially the before and after -- the build-up, and the long let-down to the present day -- are nicely handled. Penang life, especially in the 1930s and 40s (and with its ethnic divides), but also in its rapid recent transformation is particularly well presented.
       Yet The Gift of Rain is also an odd book, especially in how Tan almost insistently grounds it in very conventional fiction. There's an overwhelming sense of fate, as Philip's path is explicitly preordained -- over and over, and complete with fortune-teller told confirmation. Fittingly, then, much in the book is also very predictable -- down to the very tired formulas one would expect. So, for example, Endo teaches Philip a martial art and, of course, explains:
     "What am I teaching you ?"
     "To fight," I said.
     "No. That is the last thing I am teaching you. What I wish to show you is how not to fight."
       As in that scene, much of the book is also very cinematic -- including Tan's penchant for a sudden show of restraint at certain (physical) moments. He builds scenes up -- towards intimacy, for example -- and then, at the last second, pulls back and turns away. So there are no descriptions of the messy sex act (or, in the most important instant, the sword chopping through flesh and bone, blood spurting ...). It gives the narrative a sort of decorous feel, and, in part, is welcome (given how most authors feel obliged to describe every intimate detail), but also feels a bit forced, Tan trying a bit too hard. (And note that it's not entirely restrained: he does describe some of the horrors the Japanese perpetrate, and gets carried away in one or two torture scenes.)
       There are far too many momentous-feeling exchanges, as Philip finds his place in his family (making up with his maternal grandfather, for example, who disapproved of his daughter marrying the older Hutton) or in any number of encounters Philip has. The present-day scene also feels slightly contrived: a woman from Endo's past, carrying a letter from him, wanting to see where he had spent so much time. (And, of course, skilled in the martial arts .....) Tan can't spare her either: the after-effects of the war have finally gotten to her as well (a twist that feels like Tan is just piling it on ...).
       The relationships are fairly well-done, though they all feel slightly incomplete. Tan works too hard at focussing on relationships, and some, like Philip and Endo-san's gets too complicated for him to handle entirely convincingly. He's better with the family relationships, but even here can't convince from beginning to end -- as in, for example, the sibling relationship between Philip and his sister, Isabel.
       The impossibilities of the situation for everyone in Penang are interesting, but ultimately Tan just juggles with them, rather than completely confronting what each decision means. The Japanese are ruthless, and every action brings with it swift (and generally deadly) counter-actions. Philip positions himself in the hopeless middle, and while Tan shows the consequences of his actions and inaction and suggests it's a viable position, Philip doing the best he can, he can't entirely convince. There should be more to it than that.
       The Gift of Rain is a solid, panoramic history-adventure, with a good deal of interesting material (including a nice story-within-the-story about Philip's Chinese grandfather's time as tutor to the Chinese heir to the throne). It's well-presented, too, for the most part -- but that makes the overuse of convention all the more annoying. From meaningful middle names to the awkward presentation of the historical bits, Tan finds it hard to introduce much of his material, leading to lecture-exchanges that begin like this:
     "Have you heard of the triads ?"
     "Uncle Lim has told me about them. But I'd like to hear it from you."
     He took a long breath then said, "The triads are a strange product of history. The name comes from their use of a triangular diagram signifying the relationship of Heaven, Earth, and Man,
       Etc., etc., etc.
       It makes for an interesting if not entirely satisfying read. Tan seems to have wanted to tackle specific themes -- duty and betrayal, in particular -- but the book is at its best when he loses track of those points he's trying to make; unfortunately, he keeps remembering and returning to them.
       Still, the colourful broad canvas and the sheer variety makes The Gift of Rain hard to resist.

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The Gift of Rain: Reviews: Tan Twan Eng: Other books by Tan Twan Eng under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng was born in 1972.

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© 2008-2023 the complete review

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