The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
1The Gift of Rain was Tan Twan Eng’s first published novel. It was Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007.
I prefer to approach a book knowing only the genre and that it is recommended by someone aware of my interests. Reading back covers, reviews and synopses prevent me from experiencing the story the way the writer intended, as a deliberate unfolding of information and events.
I began The Gift of Rain in the same manner. I knew it was set in WWII, Penang, Malaysia, nothing more. I was eager to read it because I had spent four years across the Malacca Straights in Sumatra and made a brief visit to Penang while in the region.
The Gift of Rain takes place at the crossroads of English, Chinese, and Japanese cultures. It is driven by a deep psychological journey of a relationship between a charismatic, middle-aged Japanese man and a coming-of-age Chinese-English teenager. The writer’s fascination with mentorship through martial arts is clear, but I had difficulty identifying with it.
Early on, I broke my habit of not peeking. I was having trouble getting into the book, so I did a quick, reluctant scan of the blurbs. Those intrigued me enough to me keep me going but also grieved me because that foreknowledge broke the immediacy of the first-person narrative. I did not like knowing what the writer had not already revealed. But it did add some tension—knowing what was coming, identifying the clues along the way, and it gave me hope that I would eventually be gripped. I never really was.
I could not identify with the Japanese character’s seductive power over the protagonist. I understood it and it was intellectually believable, but it did not do it for me. That made it difficult to remain sympathetic to the main character as he became drawn into the Japanese atrocities. It’s hard to walk with a first-person protagonist when you can’t identify with his motivations.
I had several other difficulties connecting with the story. Japanese martial arts figure prominently – no attraction for me. There was little action other than about 30 pages toward the end of the book. Without more emotional connection to the story, I needed something to keep me turning the page. The Japanese horrors did make me angry. That was more reason for me to put the book down.
2But after all of that, I still intend to read Mr. Eng’s next book, The Garden of Evening Mists—another intersection of Chinese and Japanese culture. At least I am forewarned this time. I will read it because it is set in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia where I spent an important, rare vacation in 2002. It was there that the plot of my own novel came tumbling out of my brain. Something about the cool air and the tea. I am passionate about tea and this is a plantation area. And I remain hungry for anything set in the Malay environment. I will also read Mr. Eng’s next book because he is a skilled word crafter. I am well aware that my lack of passion for The Gift of Rain is all about me and not about his skills as a writer. I understand why this book has turned heads and won awards. He deserves the accolades. Few books can capture the heart of every reader.
3This brings me once again to my decision not to write starred reviews. My purpose here is to describe my response and offer my observations in case they are helpful to someone else. I would love to interact with anyone who has read the book and had a different experience. Clearly, this book is a great read for the right audience. I mean, it has 4.5 stars from over 5000 reviews!
If you are interested in psychological character studies, Chinese-Malaysian or Japanese culture or martial arts, and beautiful word-crafting, this book is recommended.
You can find the Amazon reviews here.
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This article was originally posted on my Long Ago & Far Away Wordpress blog in March 2014. I have made minor edits and reposted it to my Substack Archive as I believe it is of interest to Substack readers of this newsletter.
I did read The Garden of Evening Mists. You can find that article here.
You will notice that I do not write “starred reviews” or anything so formal. That is not my interest and those can be readily found elsewhere. I am randomly curious and prefer the freedom to draw out unique aspects of a work or to make connections between works and other ideas. I often post links to Amazon and/or Goodreads reviews. I am not an Amazon affiliate. I get no remuneration from the writers or the retailers.