“Was that how I appeared to my family, cold and unemotional, when I had only been trying to hide my uncertainties about my place in the scheme of things?”— The Gift of Rain, Tan Twan Eng
In his debut novel, The Gift of Rain, the Malaysian novelist Tan Twan Eng told the story of Philip Hutton during Japanese Occupation of Malaya. The protagonist Philip recounted his youth amid the turmoils of WWII in Penang, Malaysia. Philip was the son of a rich British businessman and Chinese mother. He had three half-siblings from his father’s previous marriage. Since his mother’s death, he distanced himself from the family and spent most of his time alone. Amongst his British family members, he never felt that he truly belonged to his family.
When his whole family took a trip to London, he remained at Penang and his life took a turn when he met Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat. Instantly, Philip was drawn to Endo’s uniqueness. He studied aikido and other Japanese cultures from Endo and in return Philip showed him around Penang. Soon, the bond between Philip and Endo became strong. When Japanese invaded Malaya, Philip was torn between his family, his people and his loyalty towards his sensei.
Through Philip’s evocative narration, TTE told the distressing time during Japanese invasion and the absolute cruelty of the war. Philip was merely 16 when he met Endo. He constantly battled with his love for his family and people and his strong admiration for Endo. The poignant tale of their complex relationship was told with such nuance.
You might think Philip was the main character in the story. I’d like to believe TTE set Penang as the protagonist in his first novel, an homage to his birthplace. I love, love, love how descriptive TTE was about the picturesque Penang and its culture with his lush of eloquent writings. It was mesmerizing to read such visually enticing proses.
Through his various characters, TTE captivatingly wrote a riveting story of love and loss, loyalty and betrayal, hope and despair during horrific wartime. I enjoyed the interlacing of myth and folklores between real events. Surprisingly befitting.
The Gift of Rain is his debut novel and it was long-listed for Man Booker Prize. It was equally redolent and tear-jerking as his second novel, The Garden of Evening Mist.