Sunday, September 5, 2010

Tan Twan Eng's Gift of Rain

I'm following up on the first impressions I jotted down here.

When I finished reading this book earlier this week, I did not want to pick up another, preferring to let my mind further marinate in the ideas, emotions and atmosphere of this story.

In my initial notes, I wondered if this was going to be a satisfying novel. I was aware that the first half of the book was setting the reader up for something explosive in the second half. So, does the latter half indeed live up to the former? 

Thankfully, yes, it does. But it is hard to tell you why without giving the plot away. Suffice it to say that the bonds established between family members and friends are very much tested in the latter part of the novel, when Malaya falls to the Japanese. When I finished the last page, I found myself returning to the beginning almost immediately to see how everything tied together.

Gift of Rain is not perfect but it is a strong novel, its ambitions numerous: it is a WWII story that includes the points of view of its Japanese characters, a story that explores ancient philosophy through the art and discipline of aikido (I read somewhere that Tan is himself an aikido black belt but don't let this lead you to think that this novel is an aikido manual... far from it), and an unusually intense friendship between a young student and his sensei who happens to be the Japanese enemy. The novel deals with all these difficult themes effortlessly, meditating on the problems of free will vs determination.

I really enjoyed reading about the deepening relationship between said student (Philip) and sensei (Endo-san). Philip has ample reasons to mistrust Endo-san, yet a spiritual reality that is even bigger than the war keeps him close to Endo-san. Their words to each other is not the language of lovers or between teacher and student, but of soulmates who have no need for words. That said, I like how real doubt clouds Philip's thoughts about Endo-san:
'When I am gone, what will you most remember of me?' Endo-san asked, his eyes on the planes as they faded into the distance.
I pondered the question. 'I don't know. I don't even know what to think of you now; how can I even contemplate what to recall of you?'
With each cycle of mistrust and regaining of trust, their relationship deepens.

Some novels make their readers aware of the 'space' within. For example, Preeta Samarasan's Evening Is The Whole Day largely takes place in a big house, so that we can sense the claustrophobia, or 'cabin fever', experienced by its characters. Gift of Rain is the complete opposite because it is set in wide open spaces. Since rain - that bringer of both destruction and blessing - is a recurring motif, Tan often paints his scenes with images of clouds, open seas and clear skies. I have actually skimmed the book for cloud/sky references and counted more than ten. My favourite one is this simple but effective line: 
"Dark heavy clouds rolled over the ridges like surf breaking over sea boulders". 
Even the swords used by the two main protagonists are named Cloud and Illumination, mirroring the spiritual progress towards enlightenment. Rain, of course, lowers the sky and obscures vision and clarity, hence the most harrowing period of the novel features non-stop heavenly showers. Finally, I must mention a very rewarding scene at the end that involves the Union Jack, which further illustrates my point about the freeing wide open spaces of this novel - but to tell you would be to give too much away!

So, would I recommend this book to anyone? It really depends. A 'Western' reader unfamiliar with Buddhist philosophy and reincarnation might find the mystical bits annoying or difficult, or she might find the Japanese concept of duty over love rather challenging. However, such a reader might also enjoy the twists and turns of the plot. In any case, the descriptions of people and evocations of place are beautifully written, so yes I would say, to anyone, that this is a worthwhile read. 

By far the best thing about this book is that it has spurred me to read up on this period of Malayan history, something I have not done in earnest since my school days. Somebody once said, "Art should make life more interesting than art". Isn't that the wonderful thing about literature, how it can get you enthused about other things in life? 

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