The Road Taken

This is my review of The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng.

I have given this ambitious first novel four stars because, although flawed, it is thought-provoking and conveys a vivid impression of the cultural diversity of Malaya during the 1930s-40s, and what the diverse population had to endure.

As the British in Malaya sleepwalk into the outbreak of World War 2, Philip feels somewhat alienated from the Hutton family who have made money in business and trade in the Far East for over a century. He is the youngest son, and the product of a second marriage between his father and a Chinese woman who died when Philip was small. So, he is susceptible to the influence of the charismatic Endo-san, teacher of the martial art of aikido and probable spy, laying plans for the Japanese invasion of Malaya. Although Philip has been brought up as a Christian, he has flashes of awareness of having lived in a past life with Endo-san, and of achieving a state of enlightenment through meditation.

The author's status as a Chinese Malayan and martial arts practitioner give authenticity to a plot with great potential for drama, intrigue and insight into relationships between cultures. I do not mind slow-paced, reflective novels and do not feel the need to like the main character – in this case, Philip comes across as emotionally repressed. So, why did I find Part 1 such hard going? This was partly due to an often stiff and wooden dialogue, although this may have been an attempt to convey the formality of some modes of Far Eastern expression. The plot makes heavy use of reminiscence and a "telling" style, which combine to distance the reader somewhat from events. The confidante Michiko Murakami seems dispensable to me. The book is laden with characters and minor details, and would have been sharper with more ruthless editing.

With the Japanese invasion in Part 2, the novel belatedly takes off, improving in both pace, style and dialogue. We know from the outset that Philip collaborates with the Japanese during the war, and now it becomes clear why and how. Is he naïve in thinking this will save his family? Will he ever be forgiven for his apparent treachery? Is he in fact motivated by a homoerotic relationship with Endo-san? – The author never specifically describes this as such, and the link between the two is caught up what may interest Tan Twan Eng most, namely the fact that the two men may be fated to meet in successive lives until certain matters are resolved.

Although I would say this book is original and well-written in places, it seems overlong and the author seems reluctant to "call it a day" at the end. Fascinating issues at the heart of the book are somehow not explored as clearly as I hoped. I was also repelled in particular by the obsession with daggers and swords, and switches between moments of an almost psychopathic acceptance of ritual killing to enable even guilty men to die honourably and passages of shallow sentimentality. This is, I suppose, my western take on eastern cultures I do not fully understand.

The author's second book, "Garden of the Evening Mists" is similar in having a wealthy half-westernised Malayan fall under the spell of a talented and manipulative Japanese man, in this case a gardener and tattooist. I think the later book shows a development in the author's skill as a writer, although the plot of "The Gift of Rain" is potentially more powerful and moving.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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