Caught in the middle

  • Article by: TOM HORGEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 2, 2008 - 11:13 AM

A 16-year-old Chinese-British boy in 1939 Penang, Malaysia, is looking for acceptance -- and finds it in all the wrong places.

In his debut novel, "The Gift of Rain," Tan Twan Eng gives us the painful gift of a fully realized account of Japanese imperialism during World War II.

It's an epic journey into the eye of the Asian storm, filled with the dread and turmoil that came with Japan's invasion of its neighbors. At the same time, Eng's tale overflows with mesmerizing beauty and wonder.

To personalize the magnitude of the events swirling around Asia at the time, Eng tightens his focus on the travails of a 16-year-old boy living in Penang, a tiny island off the coast of the Malay Peninsula and the author's own place of birth. In 1939, the boy, Philip Hutton, is the alienated half-Chinese, half-white son of one of the region's richest trading barons. He's shunned by both the island colony's British elite and its Asian community.

Philip thinks his life has changed for the better after befriending Endo, a mysterious Japanese man who rents a house from his absent father. In Endo, Philip finds a gentle, doting father figure who trains him in the discipline of Zen Buddhism and the martial-arts practice of aikido. In exchange, Philip eagerly shares the secrets and history of Penang, oblivious to his sensei's hidden agenda. Endo is a spy gathering information for the coming Japanese invasion. But he's more than just a spy; he's a victim of coercion and therefore a complex and more interesting character.

At 435 pages, Eng is unraveling a true saga here, writing in great detail about the historical milieu that his fictional characters inhabit. He matches his ambitious narrative with highly stylized prose. Eng is a vivid writer in love with the descriptive power of strong similes, even ones that seem a bit overstated. Take this description of a cobra that slithers past Philip and Endo as they visit an ancient Penang temple. "Its tongue stabbed out to taste the air, its scales shining like a thousand trapped souls." The mood is unsettling -- we get it. As we move deeper into the novel, Eng's embellished prose begins to match the widening scope of the story. What started as an eloquent tale about friendship transforms into a frightful chronicle of betrayal and survival. The Japanese invade, unleashing a wave of violence that brings the peninsula under its imperial rule. Philip had heard about Japan's massacre of China's northern city of Nanking -- where about 200,000 civilians were killed, many of the women raped and mutilated. He thought the war would never reach beyond China, but now it suddenly surrounds him, thanks in part to his friendship with Endo. Caught in the middle, Philip agrees to collaborate with Penang's new masters in order to save the lives of his friends and family.

It would be easy for Eng to spend the second half of the book recounting the killings and torture that Japan inflicted on its subjugated states. But the author is judicious when describing such suffering, leaving much of the violence to our imagination. Passages like this are brutal enough: "Families and villagers caught in the path of the troops were raped and bayoneted, sometimes not even in that order."

Within this horror, Eng still manages to keep a current of wonder running through his novel. The book's title is a reference to what an old soothsayer once told Philip, that he was born with "the gift of rain" and that the narrative of his life -- one filled with so much triumph and tragedy -- was already written out in prophecy. Eng seems interested in how the act of storytelling affects people's lives. Much of the novel is narrated by Philip himself, but as an old man who has buried the tragedy of his youth deep in the recesses of his mind. Who could blame him?

There is a moment in "The Gift of Rain" when Philip and his Chinese grandfather argue about the importance of memory. Philip tells his grandfather that "No one escapes history." But the wise old man reminds Philip that history is often only remembered if those who care about the past keep it alive.

It's good then that Tan Twan Eng has given the literary world "The Gift of Rain."

Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909

  • THE GIFT OF RAIN

    By: Tan Twan Eng.

    Publisher: Weinstein, 435 pages, $23.95.

    Review: An ambitious, unsettling and beautifully told coming-of-age tale set during the Japanese invasion of Malaysia during World War II.

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