“I’ve got a book you’ll love,” my friend Steven said to me after I announced I was moving to Malaysia. “It’s about a half-English, half-Malaysian person living in Malaysia – and it’s one of my favourites.”
That was all he said at the time, but it was relatable enough to intrigue me – a half-English, half-Malaysian person moving to Malaysia – and I was delighted when, a few months later, Steven arrived at my leaving do with a parting gift, quite literally: The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng, which – true to Steven’s description – is about a young boy named Philip who is half-English, half-Chinese Malaysian, and, as the blurb describes, ‘feeling neither’. I was intrigued to read it as I embarked on my Malaysian adventure, but I had no idea just how serendipitous it would be. For let’s be more specific – Philip lives in Penang, the tiny, charming island on the west coast of Malaysia, where I was moving to specifically – and the book itself is a love letter to Penang as much as it is a harrowing tale of Malaya in World War II. As I was reading and adjusting to Penang life, everything Philip did, ate, and encountered were things I was starkly familiar with – the streets he walked, the char kuey teow he ate or nyonya food he described, the hotels and bars he visited with friends, the mansions and clans and jetties and hawkers of George Town – and I couldn’t possibly believe the coincidence of reading it in the brief time I was living there myself. Steven didn’t even recall it was set in Penang when he gave it to me. It’s easy to say it felt like fate.
But enough about me, and more about the book (all spoiler-free) – though I have no doubt my personal circumstance had a very strong effect on my enjoyment of it. The book begins when Philip, as an old man in modern Penang, tells a relative stranger about his late teens and early twenties in World War II, and his encounters with a Japanese friend and sensei which led to one of the most remarkable relationships of his life. He meets Hayato Endo (known throughout as ‘Endo-san’) when he is only 16, a loner in Penang who feels out of place in his white-English family, before the War and before (presumably) the fear and terror of the Japanese and what they could inflict. He learns martial arts and Japanese rituals with the older man he comes to see as a friend, father, mentor, and, ambiguously suggested at times, a lover. But when Japan invades Malaya and the War rages over Penang, Philip has to decide where his loyalties lie, at great political cost either way.
At first, I wasn’t so sure about the book. I mentioned that the fact it was being written about a world I was so familiar with was very endearing, but at the same time, Tan dips into almost a guidebook-style at times, with overly and unnecessarily descriptive segments about various aspects of Penang life, which felt a little jarring and gratuitous in a novel. The style of writing itself didn’t sit well with me at first, and the ‘old man talking about his young life’ fell into a cliché style of storytelling (with not to mention some very Male Gaze descriptions of the woman Philip is talking to). But as the book progressed, these weaknesses vanished as either Tan found his rhythm or I adjusted to his style as a reader. And once we hit WWII, I could barely put it down.
As a European who only studied History up until I was 15 or so, I find I’ve only been taught about World War II with a very Euro-centric focus – it was only after reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North did I learn more about and realise the extent of what was happening in Australasia at the time. Given I’m half-Malaysian, it’s pretty bad form on my part not to have known more about Malaysia’s history, but I’ve found that as an adult I’ve been exposed to and learnt a lot more about significant historical events worldwide through literature. Since Richard Flanagan’s book, I’ve been strangely fascinated with what was happening in this part of the world (I even went to look at parts of the Death Railway in Thailand recently), and The Gift of Rain is another example of historical fiction done well – factual, with enough personable content specific to the character to make it easy to empathise with the horrors within. Not to mention accurate: I’ve spoken anecdotally to a few of my Malaysian friends about it, who recall their grandparents’ deep fear and horror associated with the Japanese occupation at the time.
The Gift of Rain has also a slightly supernatural element, with both Endo-san and Philip believing they have met before in previous lifetimes (and occasionally seeing flashes of their encounters), and are due to meet again and again life-after-life until they strike a balance of harmony. Fortunately this doesn’t dwarf or overwhelm the plot, nor does it dull the tension hovering over what’s going to happen to Philip. At times the suspense is biting, and I felt a genuine and very deep loss for well-developed characters that met bitter fates at the hands of the Japanese. My only criticism of the characters’ relationships is that I didn’t necessarily feel the same sense of admiration for Endo-san that Philip did, and as a result this pivotal relationship and Philip’s deep, loving, almost unconditional respect for the man felt a bit forced. It meant that the climactic moment in their relationship didn’t have the same hard-hitting effect on me as some of the others did, but it might just be me and the way I read it (I’ll have to ask Steven what he reckons).
I have no idea if the book has a film adaptation, and I hope it doesn’t get adapted, though I think it would make for a very nice television series, particularly if it was produced and filmed in Penang. Living here has made me lament how perfect and scenic Penang would be for a film setting, and we all know how starved mainstream television and media is for true Asian representation. Plus, let’s be frank, there are enough British characters mixed with the Japanese and Malaysians to give it a solid greenlight in the BBC writers’ room.
My Goodreads account has buggered itself up a bit, but I’m pretty sure I gave this one 4 out of 5 stars – not perfect, but a new favourite.