In 1939 life in Malaya (now called Malaysia) changed forever. The haze of British colonialism, class structures, calm and everyday life disappeared with the invasion of the Japanese. Author Tan Twan Eng uses this dramatic backdrop for his novel The Gift of Rain, a vivid coming of age story. And. A 2007 Man Booker nominee.
When the novel opens a surprise visit from a stranger forces Philip Hutton to look back on the changes that over took his life fifty years earlier when he was a young man. It was a time that took him from The Huttons are one of Malaya’s most powerful, white families. Their place in society and their wealth are long established. The youngest son in the family Philip, in spite of money and privilege, feels like an outsider. His mother is Chinese. As half English half Chinese he is well aware of what his mixed race means and how protected he is by his family’s’ money and position.
Shortly before the war Philips’ father placed him in charge of the family’s trading company. Without what little security he feels when surrounded by his father and brothers Philip drifts into a friendship with another outsider, Hayato Endo a Japanese diplomat. Philip is excited to finally have someone to share things with and Endo reciprocates by teaching Philip aikido, how to speak Japanese and about the Japanese culture. In fact Endo becomes Philips’ mentor. When the war arrives in Malaya by way of invading Japanese soldiers, Philip is unsure of where is loyalties lay. Has he already betrayed his family?
Tan Twan Eng layers the complications into The Gift of Rain artfully. The full weight of choices and behavior, the conflicts created by war and family relationships build steadily until Eng has the tension set at page turner degree. The Gift of Rain is not perfect: the dialog can get clunky, the flashback technique is a little cumbersome and Eng sometimes has a heavy had with morality. However there is also a sweeping plot, a captivating recreation of place, intrigue and strongly developed, charismatic characters.