The Gift of Rain
by Tan Twan Eng
Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
"I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me." So begins Tan Twan Eng's novel set in Penang, a small island off the Malaya peninsula prior to the start of World War II. Actually, the novel is set in the present day, with an elderly Phillip Hutton, the Chinese-English scion of a successful businessman, reflecting on his life. This act of remembrance is triggered by the arrival of a stranger bearing an ancient samurai sword that once belonged to his Aikido sensei Hayato Endo. Endo was a Japanese diplomat who rented an island from Hutton's father and is now buried there. This visit forces Hutton to reconcile the ghosts of his past that he has wrestled with for over fifty years.
As the novel is set in 1939, and features Japanese and Chinese characters, a reasonably educated reader can sense that the story is destined for tragedy, and Gift of Rain is rife with it. However, between these moments of absolute heartbreak are passages of dazzling lyricism that explore the nature of honor and loyalty to family and nation.
Eng's writing is as fluid and graceful as the aikijutsu practiced by the narrator, elegantly describing a place and time that is at once vividly real and fantastically alien. The island of Penang is a patchwork of different nationalities and cultures that Eng effortlessly brings to life:
And there were the smells, always the smells that remain unchanged even to this day -- the scents of spices drying in the sun, sweetmeats roasting on charcoal grills, curries bubbling on fiery stoves, dried salted fish swaying on strings, nutmeg, pickled shrimps -- all these swirled and mixed with the scent of the sea, fusing into a pungent concoction that entered us and lodged itself into the memory of our hearts.
The effect of Eng's prose is evocative and instantly transports the reader to a destination that only exists in fading memories and imagination.
No less effective are Eng's descriptions of the wisdom and serenity provided through the narrator's experience of martial arts, which are his sole refuge during the impossibly cruel period of history he is witnessing. Hutton's daily practice mirrors his own personal growth. Early in his training, Endo-san tells his student, "Feel, open up, be aware of everything. If anything goes wrong, if my technique is faulty or if I fail you, then at the very least you are in a position to protect yourself and fall safely." Not only is Endo describing a core tenant of all martial arts, he is providing his pupil with invaluable advice on how to confront the choices he'll have to make once the inevitable Japanese invasion begins.
Even for the non-martial artist, there is much to admire in The Gift of Rain. While the relationship between master and disciple is the novel's crux, there is an intricately crafted story of a young man's rise to adulthood, his discovery of family and the community around him, and a lucidly conveyed sense of history that is there for the reader to discover. This is the first book that I've gone back and re-read immediately upon completion, and one thing that struck me is that the plot moves along swiftly, but not at the expense of characterization or language. Just as the martial artist strives to move in an economic yet effective manner, there are few wasted words to be found in this novel. There is, however, a multitude of riches to be unearthed.