One of the lesser-known horrors of war is the way it can pervert human relationships and loyalties, whether between parents and children, teachers and students, or friends. In Tan Twan Eng's amazing debut novel, which was long-listed for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, we're presented with societies whose sense of loyalty, duty and honor are already intense, and easily twisted by the depravities of World War II.
The protagonist of The Gift of Rain is Philip Hutton, the youngest child of a British planter and his young Chinese wife, who, like Eng, was born and raised in Penang, off the coast of Malaysia, then called Malaya. The story is told inretrospect when Philip is an old man, and his memories of his beloved martial arts teacher Hayato Endo have been revived by the arrival of an equally elderly lady who also once loved Endo-san, though chastely.
Because he is half Chinese and his half-siblings are fully British, the Philip we encounter as a boy is something of a loner. Then, when he's 16, just before the start of the war, he meets a Japanese man on the beach who asks to borrow his boat. Philip not only loans the boat but becomes Endo-san's pupil, though the relationship is disapproved of by Philip's family and community; even before the war the Japanese aren't trusted in Malaya. The effect pupil and teacher have on each other, and their societies, is incalculable, both catastrophic and redemptive by turns. Indeed, sometimes catastrophe and redemption are so intertwined that they can't be untangled.
Eng's writing is beautiful and sensuous, whether he describes a temple full of slithering snakes, the smells of cooking food or the light of hundreds of fireflies caught in mosquito netting. Interestingly, The Gift of Rain also shares many of the qualities of a boy's adventure story. The most intense relationships are between men, there's no sex and no swearing and there's even a scene involving the threat of torture and a ticking time bomb that could have been plucked out of "24." But these are in no way flaws. The Gift of Rain is a splendidly written tale about the consequences of war and friendship.
Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.