The Gift of Rain
by Tan Twan Eng
Philip Hutton is sixteen when his family makes its five yearly visit ‘home’ to England and he refuses to go. To him, England is cold and dull and he is aware of his family’s slight embarrassment at having to explain him to their friends. Because of his mixed parentage he is never completely accepted by either the Chinese or the English in Penang. The boys at the English school taunt him: too Chinese to laugh, he is too English to show his distress.
Philip is the youngest of one of the oldest families in Penang. His great-grandfather, Graham Hutton, had sailed to the East Indies to make his fortune in 1780. The Malay Peninsula had been partially colonised since the sixteenth century, first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and, finally, the British. The discovery of tin and the suitability of the soil and the climate for the planting of rubber trees – when both materials were of vital importance to the Industrial Revolution – convinced Graham Hutton to found Hutton & Sons in Penang. He built a Palladian mansion on a cliff overlooking the sea. Its doors, floors, window frames and furniture were of Burmese teak and Hutton imported stonemasons from Kent, ironmongers from Glasgow, marble from Italy and coolie labour from India for the construction of its 25 rooms. When Philip Hutton’s father, Noel, inherited the house, a swimming pool and two tennis courts were added.
Noel, left a widower at thirty two with three small children, met and married a pretty young Chinese woman, Yu Lian, and Philip was born. Sadly, when Philip was just seven, Yu Lian died of malaria caught while out hunting butterflies with her husband. Had she lived, Philip might not have become the intensely lonely boy who lived alone for several months while the English part of his family went ‘home’.
It was thus that the lonely boy became deeply attached to his Japanese martial arts teacher. Philip did not feel English, he didn’t even feel Anglo-Asian and he found his days with Endo-San to be magical. Under the influence of the older man, he soon learned Japanese. But far away the threads that bound the world were becoming unravelled. Europe was going to war and Japan was setting up its puppet regime in Manchuria as a launching pad into China. Dark days were coming, but for the moment the sun still shone on Malaya and Philip was happier than he had known possible.
The storm breaks upon Malaya while his family is away in England. The Japanese follow the path through the forest and take over the only home he has ever known. Philip has to choose whether to save the family firm by serving the Japanese as an interpreter (and spy) or being sent to a Japanese prison camp. Initially, he joins the Japanese, but disgusted with the atrocities perpetrated on the Malays, he becomes a double agent, and in the process betrays his friends, his family, servants and neighbours.
THE GIFT OF RAIN is a deeply rewarding book. Tan Twan Eng describes the beauty of Penang with affection and there is much about Aikido, Martial Arts and Buddhism. It is beautifully written, worrying at times, but always exciting, interesting and evocative. It was long-listed for the Mann Booker Prize, 2007.