The Gift of Rain – Tan Twan Eng

July 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

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This was another book that came highly recommended, this time by a blogger friend, whom I have yet to meet personally. She did not have much to say, just said that it was one of her favourite books, and gave it five stars worth on LibraryThing. I did not need much convincing after that, especially considering the fact that the author is Malaysian, and the story set in Malaya during the difficult period of World War 2.

The story begins with an old man living out his normal routine, only to be disturbed from his relative peace by the coming of a Japanese woman. Phillip has never met Michiko, but the strong bond between them exists through their intertwined history, and this is when it all starts, when Phillip tells his story to Michiko, as much for her sake and for his own salvation.

There are many aspects to this novel. One very notable aspect is the way the story revolves around the more spiritual side of things. The belief system behind aikijutsu, or aikido which centers around harmony and integration of forces, to the belief of reincarnation, of rebirth and of living multiple lives give depth to this already rich story, adding dimensions that test our own beliefs and push our own boundaries.

The depiction of old-time Penang also brings a melancholy touch to the story-telling. Having not been to Penang, but being a Malaysian myself, I can almost feel from the author’s writing the atmosphere that could have existed in Malaya during those pre-war times. The little anecdotes of local tradition and superstition create a stronger connection between the reader and the story, creating a conversation almost, it felt like the author was deliberately trying to lead the reader into the story, to walk the streets and smell the scents with his characters.

The story-telling was a very descriptive one. The author described not only the physical, but also the emotional aspects of what his characters were thinking. In one instance, when Phillip saw the Japanese propaganda pamphlets being scattered, the author wrote:

An image came to me of a Chinese funeral I had attended once when one of our staff died. The monk leading the ceremony had scattered sheaves of paper money as he walked and the pieces of paper had floated in the hot afternoon, writhing and twisting like the lost souls they were meant to appease, soundlessly cradling down to earth. Now as the cars passed, as the words of the Japanese flew up and then swung down again in pendulous motion, that memory came back to me and I was fearful. I was witnessing the funerary rites of my country, of my home.

The author did more than just tell a story (and he did that exceptionally well). He included in his novel some peeks into the Japanese culture. Phillips sensei, Endo-san was the main character used in this book to depict the ways of the Japanese, the subtlety, and quiet and the dignified respect. There were little bits and things added in, like how the swords were created in pairs as a form of balance; how the names of the two swords, kumo and hikari, meaning cloud and illumination respectively, symbolising shadow and light which form the very basis of Japanese culture.

This was also a story of family ties, of friendships formed in the oddest of circumstances, of loyalty, of being torn between duty and love, and of the unbreakable bond between teacher and student. These issues of the heart are told in such a way that the author does not impose it upon his reader that one form is better than the other. He manages to highlight the highs and lows of life, of the difficulty in making decisions, and of the integrity in living with one’s choices, but leaves enough ambiguity for us to make up our own minds about these things.

In the end, perhaps life is a series of ambiguities, and we might never know the wisdom or foolishness of our decisions.

Conclusion: This is definitely another book that is worth reading a second time. There are many parts that deserve more attention than they were given. Though excrutiatingly descriptive at times, overall it left me very satisfied, and even succeeded in exceeding those very high expectations that I had of it.

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