Tan Twan Eng: The Gift of Rain
Tan’s first novel is mainly set in Penang, Malaya, in the period leading up to and during the Japanese invasion of Malaya in World War II. It is told by Philip Hutton. He is the youngest of four of Noel Hutton, who runs a successful family-operated investment bank in Penang. Noel had married Sarah and had had three children by her – William, Edward and Isabel. Sarah had died and he had then married a Chinese woman, Khoo Yu Lian. Philip was the result of that union. She, too died – when Philip was seven – and Noel had not remarried. Philip had always been a bit of a loner, feeling different from the rest of his family, both because of his ethnicity and age difference, as well as feeling different from other English boys. One summer, the entire family is planning to make its usual six-month journey to England. Philip, who is now nearing the end of his school days, declines to come, as he does not like England, because of the climate but also because he feels different there, so he stays on his own (with the servants) in the family mansion. His father has recently leased a small offshore island to a visitor, which rather annoys Philip, as it has been his hideaway. Inevitably, Philip meets the resident of the island, Endo Hayato.
Much of this story is told by the aging Philip, long after the war, to Michiko Murakami. She turns up at his door one day, unannounced. Though Philip has never met her, he knows who she is. She had known Endo when they were young and they had had an affair, despite the objections of their respective parents. Finally, Endo’s father had forbidden him to see her anymore and he had obeyed, but she had continued to love him. Endo’s father had opposed the increasing Japanese militarism and his outspoken views were considered treason, which caused him much trouble. Michiko has come to find out about Endo’s stay in Malaya. Philip met Endo soon after the departure of his family for England. Endo has taken to the boy and he was soon teaching Philip things Japanese, particularly aikido but also Japanese language and culture. They develop a strong teacher-student relationship and Endo even takes Philip to Kuala Lumpur. However, we soon get the feeling that Endo has ulterior motives for being in Malaya and Philip also starts having suspicions.
Philip’s developing relationship with Endo is told against the background of the deteriorating political situation in South-East Asia. Japan has invaded China and details of Japanese atrocities, particularly the Nanking Massacre, are starting to leak out. This is particularly relevant in Malaya, where there is a large Chinese population and many still had relatives in China. Two other key events also happened to Philip that summer. For the first time in his life, he acquires a friend, Yeap Chee Kon, son of Towkay Yeap, head of a local triad. Kon is also taking aikido lessons, though from someone else, Hideki Tanaka, who turns out to have closer connections with Endo than both boys realise. They fight with one another but also discuss what will happen in the case of a Japanese invasion. Philip also meets his grandfather, Khoo Wu An, for the first time. He had been opposed to his daughter marrying Noel Hutton and had not attended either the wedding or funeral. Philip had kept up contact with his Chinese family through his aunt (his mother’s sister) and it is she who finally arranges the meeting between her father and nephew. The two get on well and Philip learns that his grandfather had worked for the (fictitious) last Chinese emperor but one.
But it is what happens in the war that is important and Philip, his family and the other key participants (on both sides) have some difficult decisions to make. We know early on (from his discussions with Michiko) that he is the sole survivor of his family and we also know that what he did in the war has led to a certain amount of controversy with the local community. What happened is superbly told by Tan and certainly not always predictable. Loyalty (to one’s country and to one’s family and the playoff between the two), honour (of course), courage (of course) and, for later on, remembering (and forgetting) are all key and handled very well. Despite one or two inconsistencies (Philip claims to have spent every night of his life in the same bedroom, which we later learn is not true) and one or two improbabilities, it is a very fine novel.
First published 2007 by Myrmidon