Book Review: The Gift Of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

The Gift of Rain tells a story of how Phillip, an Anglo-Chinese boy, discovered a sense of belonging in an unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat, just a few years before the Japanese Occupation took place. He was never able to connect with anyone – friends, family, himself. But by being a student of the diplomat, he trained in the art of aikido and gained strength physically, mentally, and spiritually.

When the jipunakui (derogatory term for Japanese) invaded Malaya, he was often at crossroads, deliberating on whether to choose the side of his master, or his own kind in Penang.

Here are five reasons on why you should read The Gift Of Rain:

  1. The language is simple; the descriptions, “visible”; the storytelling, impeccable.

Many books often over describe something just to paint a clearer picture in the mind of a reader – one only needs to write just enough to let the reader paint his/her own picture. When writers do this, they are forced to stop telling the story. The Gift Of Rain manages to keep this delicate balance between story development and visibility.

Also, the language here is simple enough to read through without often checking Google for words unheard of; hence it flows even for the novel novice. I included here a few examples of my favorite passages:

I have never seen the light of Penang replicated anywhere else in the world – bright, bringing everything into razor-sharp focus, yet at the same time warm and forgiving, making you want to melt into the walls it shines on, into the leaves it gives life to. It is the kind of light that illuminates not only what the eyes see, but also what the heart feels.

She drew in her breath. A light layer of mist rose up from the surface of the river and, in the trees, shining as though the stars had fallen to earth, tens of thousands of fireflies were sending out their silent mating signals. We were caught in a frenzy of fragmented light. I heard Michiko let out a sigh and felt her hand reach for mine. I move it away and gently spun the boat in a circle, keeping it in the same spot as beneath us the river ran to the sea.

The journey was pleasant, the scenery a rushing blur of greenery broken by clumps of little villages near the tracks. […] Near the town of Ipoh the train went across a vast lake, its surface smooth and reflective, so that for the ten minutes required to cross it I felt we were skimming across a pool of mercury.

   2.  It’s situated in Penang; hokkiens/Malaysians will love the familiarity.

Hardly when we read fiction do we ever get to read about our homes, neighborhoods, beaches, trees, birds, and people. For anybody who would like to take an extra step further to learn how to describe our surroundings, reading a book like the The Gift Of Rain will help immensely.

Besides that, it takes you through the Japanese occupation in the eyes of a local. For several times he traveled to KL, Ipoh, and back to Penang, and I never failed to feel as though I was there walking in his shoes, hearing the waves of the sea and the rustling of the coconut fronds, taking the tram up to Penang Hill and the steam train to KL, and walking along the hawker stalls in Gurney Drive and the dense forests the guerrillas called their home.

   3.  It teaches lessons of aikido, friendship, and love (but not in a way chick flicks portray romance).

There were many moments Phillip developed himself spiritually: connecting with his family, his grandfather, his mother (whom he had never met), and Hayato Endo. The type of love was not one of romance, but of something stronger than a brotherhood:

That moment notched the beginning of our relationship, our real relationship. We had passed beyond the boundaries that encircled the pupil and the master. From that moment, he began to treat me more as an equal, although I sensed that he held back as though he did not want to repeat a mistake made in his earlier life.

This was a bit more romantic, but in a very tragic sense:

I found a hole and inside I found Ming. She had dug up Ah Hock and turned him over, so that his eyes stared through me and beyond to the sky. She lay next to him, her eyes open to the tender rain, her arms around her dead husband. I could not see her blood, but I smelled it. I went into the hole and grasped her wrists, slippery from her opened veins. She was still breathing, her eyelids flickering once, twice, like a statue that had turned to flesh but was now reverting to stone.

I searched in my pockets for a handkerchief to bind her wrists but the cloth blackened immediately. She shook her head. “Stay with me,” she whispered. I held her hand and sat down in the cold mud.

Towards dawn her hand tightened on mine and she moved her mouth. I leaned over her and asked, “What is it?”

“Bury us together.”

   4.  It’s deep AF, but still easy to follow.

The recurring theme in this story revolved around this idea of enlightenment, peace, and fate. When I was reading it, I was (but still am) going through tough times – anxiety, paranoia, fear. All these things clogged up my mind, but reading this book was a form of consolation. The idea of fate was central to the plot too:

Then you understand that certain things cannot be stopped, that they must be allowed to proceed, regardless of the consequences?

This was one way how Endo perceived aikido:

As with all the principles of aikijutsu, you do not meet the force of the strike head-on. You parry, you step to the side to avoid the blow, your redirect the force and unbalance your opponent. It is the same with the ken, the sword. These principles apply to you daily life as well. Never meet a person’s anger directly. Deflect, distract him, even agree with him. Unbalance his mind, and you can lead him anywhere you want.

This referred to the hardships Phillip had to face when he betrayed Penangites for the greater good:

What made it worse was that we could never truly share such burdens with even those closest to us. In the end, the mistakes were our own, the consequences to be borne by us alone.

    5.   You can lansi your way overseas and at home telling everyone the author is Malaysian.

Come on. Support Malaysian literature. He’s an IP lawyer from Penang. How awesome is that? That is what I have been telling people when they asked me about the book, and I never felt prouder to reveal that this Malaysian author does such a fantastic job in storytelling.

Stories need to be simple and clear, leaving out unnecessary characters and situations, only including those that can drive forward the theme and progression of the story. Tan Twan Eng did just that. If there is one thing I applaud him most for having, it is the ability to make things flow.

Fun fact: I normally take more than 3 months to finish a novel (I’m a very slow but focused reader), but this took me less than a month and a half.

All in all, if you would like to read it, I’d gladly lend it to you.

in one month I finished half. now I don't feel like finishing the other half sigh

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