I’ve just – sadly – finished a novel and, you know, sometimes within the first page that what you are going to read will be exceptional. It might be the evocation of a familiar setting, a specific time or place, the sharp delineation of a character, the nostalgia of a mood or scene or the beauty of the imagery clarifying a picture or a dozen other details but you know you have found one of those rare novels that hooks you immediately. In my case it was the imagery in the following sentence “” I could almost hear the chimes themselves and see the dust motes in the ray of sunshine filtering through wooden shutters into darkened, silent rooms.
So it was with A Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng, a taut, gripping story and a deep look into the darker sides of loyalty, honour and family and what those bonds involve, when placed under intense and conflicting pressures.
Set in Penang, a former British bastion akin to Singapore, Hong Kong and Rangoon, several years before and during the Japanese invasion of Malaya and told by the elderly Phillip Khoo-Hutton to distract a surprise guest from her physical pain. The scion of a rich British merchant and a powerful Chinese family, Philip never felt he fully belonged to either culture and as tries to explain his relationship with the figure that has dominated his life and deeply impacted too on the life of his visitor he finds he may seek absolution from his guest in exchange for the honesty of his relationship with his mentor.
Images and similes are used beautifully to capture a precise moment in time as in “The sea sighed each time a wave collapsed on the shore line like a long-distance runner at the finishing line….. the waves roll to the shore with the detachment of a monk unfurling a scroll.”
Faced with differing cultures and ideas, Philip is gradually made aware of the importance of ancestry and loyalty to family but it is with his mysterious mentor that Philip experiences a rare and fleeting moment of intense lucidity.
“He had betrayed my innocence but at the same time had replaced it with knowledge and strength and love”
But that had never been enough to quieten the internal conflict his betrayal of all sides, the Japanese and the inhabitants of Penang, his homeland, had caused. Stung by his father’s accusations, Philip convinces himself that he is acting from a higher principle in line with his new understanding of family and ancestry and his duty to protect them at all costs.
Nevertheless, his suffering and pain in this confessional remembering of the paths he followed, remain and he endures now in the vain hope that he will re-experience the joy he once felt in those tumultuous times.
A fantastic read.