I had reviewed Tan Twan Eng's novel The Gift of Rain when I had interviewed him. It appeared in India Se (Nov 2007). Here's the full version:
The Gift of Rain
By Tan Twan Eng
This year’s Man Booker Prize long list surprised many Booker watchers as established literary names were sidestepped to make way for new literary talents. Tan Twan Eng with his The Gift of Rain was one of them, about whom or whose debut novel hardly anyone had heard before.
Twan, a lawyer by profession, had struggled to find a publisher for his novel through his agent; but all that agony paid off with the Booker nomination.
Though the novel did not make it to the Booker shortlist, it immediately grabbed the attention of readers the world over and made it to the Amazon.com’s best seller list. Impressive for a little known work of fiction by a Malaysian writer!
And after reading it, I am asking why didn’t it make to the shortlist? I sincerely thought it was deserving of going further.
The novel is set in the Second World War time of Penang, then under British Malaya. The story is narrated by the novel’s protagonist Philip Hutton, a half-Chinese, half-English young man. Though in the novel’s opening scene, we meet a much older Philip who welcomes an old Japanese lady to his house, and the meeting leads to the opening of the floodgates of his memory.
As the masterful narrative unfolds, we are taken around Penang with a cast of exceptionally etched out characters who stay with us long after we have finished reading the last sentence. In the novel, the mystical Penang, with all its geography, architecture, beaches, temples, rainforests, sounds and smells, itself comes across as a solid character.
In the heart of the narrative lies the friendship between the 16-year old Philip and a much older Japanese diplomat, Hayato Endo, who comes to Penang with a special mission. The friendship flourishes into the relationship of master and disciple when Philip starts learning aikido from Endo.
Like all relationships in life, this too exacts a price and both Philip and Endo have to pay that price in a manner that can only haunt and overwhelm the reader. The values of love and friendship and the steadfast courage in the face of betrayal and barbarism -- all such human conditions have been deeply and marvelously explored in the mesmerizing weave of a narrative.
Twan not just impresses you with his wisdom and grace in writing, it is his powerful sense of aesthetic description and acute observation, in splendidly crafted metaphors and epithets that make you sit up and intensely enjoy the work. Sample this: “It was a balmy night, the sea giving off a metallic sheen, the sky starless, an unending sheet of black velvet.” Almost every paragraph is embellished with such beautifully chiseled sentences.
Once you start reading, Twan’s words will fascinate you. It is his writing power that has turned the story of a friendship into sort of a mythic narrative. This is definitely one of the most powerful debuts in recent years which makes a lot of contemporary fiction seem incredibly shallow in comparison.