The Gift of Rain

( 36 )


The recipient of extraordinary acclaim from critics and the bookselling community, Tan Twan Eng's debut novel casts a powerful spell and has garnered comparisons to celebrated wartime storytellers Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene. Set during the tumult of World War II, on the lush Malayan island of Penang, The Gift of Rain tells a riveting and poignant tale about a young man caught in the tangle of wartime loyalties and deceits.

In 1939, sixteen-year-old Philip Hutton-the ...

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The Gift of Rain: A Novel

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The recipient of extraordinary acclaim from critics and the bookselling community, Tan Twan Eng's debut novel casts a powerful spell and has garnered comparisons to celebrated wartime storytellers Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene. Set during the tumult of World War II, on the lush Malayan island of Penang, The Gift of Rain tells a riveting and poignant tale about a young man caught in the tangle of wartime loyalties and deceits.

In 1939, sixteen-year-old Philip Hutton-the half-Chinese, half-English youngest child of the head of one of Penang's great trading families-feels alienated from both the Chinese and British communities. He at last discovers a sense of belonging in his unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat. Philip proudly shows his new friend around his adored island, and in return Endo teaches him about Japanese language and culture and trains him in the art and discipline of aikido. But such knowledge comes at a terrible price. When the Japanese savagely invade Malaya, Philip realizes that his mentor and sensei-to whom he owes absolute loyalty-is a Japanese spy. Young Philip has been an unwitting traitor, and must now work in secret to save as many lives as possible, even as his own family is brought to its knees.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

This remarkable debut saga of intrigue and akido flashes back to a darkly opulent WWII-era Malaya. Phillip Hutton, 72, lives in serene Penang comfort, occasionally training students as an akido master "teacher of teachers." A visit from Michiko Murakami sends him spiraling back into his past, where he grows up the alienated half-British, half-Chinese son of a wealthy Penang trader in the years before WWII. When Hutton's father and three siblings leave him to run the family company one summer, he befriends a mysterious Japanese neighbor named Mr. Endo. Japan is on the opposing side of the coming war, but Endo paradoxically opts to train Hutton in the ways of aikido, in what both men come to see as the fulfillment of a prophecy that has haunted them for several lifetimes. When the Japanese army invades Malaya, chaos reigns, and Phillip makes a secret, very profitable deal. He cannot, however, offset the costs of his friendship with Endo. Eng's characters are as deep and troubled as the time in which the story takes place, and he draws on a rich palette to create a sprawling portrait of a lesser explored corner of the war. Hutton's first-person narration is measured, believable and enthralling. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

This epic first novel involves the life of Philip Arminius Khoo-Hutton-half-British and half-Chinese, who lives on the Malaysian island of Penang prior to World War II. Feeling like an outcast in his aristocratic British family, he befriends an older Japanese diplomat, Endo-san, who teaches him the art of aikido. A sacred bond grows between student and teacher-"next to a parent, a teacher is the most important person in one's life." When war erupts and the Japanese invade Malaya, Philip finds his loyalty divided between his family and Endo-san. In a series of dramatic events, he discovers support from his courageous Chinese past told through his grandfather, a sustaining friendship with a fellow student of aikido name Kon, and a mysterious association with Endo-san that has been playing out for hundreds of years and can only be broken in a ritual of death. Philip's personal drama unfolds against the backdrop of fascinating glimpses into Chinese culture, British imperialism, and the Japanese occupation that eventually claims the lives of everyone around him. Strong characters and page-turning action make this a top pick for historical fiction.
—David A. Berona

Kirkus Reviews
Though this debut novel of divided loyalties in Southeast Asia during World War II has the epic sweep of a TV mini-series, portentous dialogue and belabored themes undermine its otherwise engrossing plot. Narrating the novel, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is Philip Hutton, whom the reader first encounters as the Malaysian island of Penang is about to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of Japanese occupation. As the surviving member of one of the island's leading families, the half-Chinese, half-English Hutton is surprised to receive a visitor from Japan, Michiko Murakami, an aged woman previously unknown to him. She soon reveals that the two have a strong tie through their mutual association with Hayato Endo, a teacher of martial arts and Zen Buddhism, who had exerted a profound influence on both. Much of the rest of the novel finds Philip relating to Michiko (and the reader) how his relationship with Endo had determined his life's course. The narrative structure is a little clunky (Michiko disappears for hundreds of pages at a time, making the reader wonder whether this setup is really necessary), but Hutton's story is frequently compelling. He had become the pupil of the Japanese master as a teenager, when he was already struggling with questions of identity and allegiance. The only child of his British father's second marriage, to a Chinese woman who died when he was a boy, he felt like a foreigner with his father and stepsiblings. The influence of Endo on Philip further complicates familial relations, particularly after Japan invades Malaya during World War II. Was Philip a collaborator who betrayed his own country? Did he do what he needed to protect hisfamily? Or was he a patriot engaged in subversion against the Japanese who had come to trust him?The author makes it clear that issues of treason and patriotism-and fate and free will-defy easy resolution. Agent: Jane Gregory/Gregory and Company
The Barnes & Noble Review
In Penang, monsoons blow ten months of the year, dropping nearly nine feet of water on the island, three times what sozzled Seattle gets. The rhythms of this downpour give Tan Twan Eng's epic debut, The Gift of Rain, which is set in Penang and stretches across centuries, a sleepy melancholy. Water trickles down drainpipes, pings windowpanes, and laps at seashores. Reading the novel you almost want to pop an umbrella of sympathy -- or wipe the rain from your glasses. It doesn't bother Philip Hutton, however, the book's half-Chinese, half-British narrator. "I was born the gift of rain," he says. Good things, for him, arrive by storm clouds, including -- in the opening scene -- the woman who inspires him to make amends with the past.

In the novel's dreamy opening scene, a 75-year-old widow arrives at Hutton's sprawling mansion, bearing a sword and some questions. She wants to talk about a Japanese man they both knew -- she as a lover, Hutton as an aikido master. Aging and alone, Hutton girds himself for one final look into time's reflecting pool. "There is the misconception that we have reached our destination the moment we grow old," he says, "but...we are still traveling toward those destinations...even on the day we close our eyes for the final time."

These earnest sentiments eventually give way to the story, which boomerangs back to 1939, the year Philip's father, a wealthy shipping and trading magnate, leased a small island to a Japanese diplomat named Hayato Endo. Philip was a lonely child, driven by the lugubrious self-reliance of a boy who lost his mother at a young age. One year, while Philip and his half siblings (who were born to a full English mother) are on a six-month visit to England, Philip discovers Endo standing at their front door. Reports of Japanese atrocities have already begun to trickle out of China, and the mansion's Chinese servants are none to happy to see Endo on the grounds.

Readers ignorant of Chinese-Malay history will not need a refresher course to follow along in such scenes. Eng braids The Gift of Rain with enormous swathes of history, beginning with 1939 and stretching back centuries, then returning to the present day. He also takes special care to describe Penang to readers, revealing that, in spite of the tale that Hutton is about to tell us, the man belongs nowhere else. "I have never seen the light of Penang replicated anywhere else in the world," Hutton says, "bright, bringing everything into razor-sharp focus, yet at the same time warm and forgiving, making you want to melt into the walls."

The Gift of Rain toggles between this shiny present and the long-ago past, the latter of which is far more vividly sketched. Thus we learn that in that distant summer, Philip struck up a friendship with Endo and began learning aikido from him. Eng brings to life their exhausting training sessions -- which included instruction in Japanese -- the quick bond of trust that sparring inspires, the pleasing clarity of learning through pain. "We bowed and he kicked me, aiming for my kidneys," Hutton recalls. "I was not fast enough -- I was staring at his eyes, at his hands.... The pain flared like red ink splashed on paper."

Eng is a hit-or-miss stylist. Clumsy scenes cascade through thickets of excessive description only to stumble into an image, like the one above, so beautiful one wonders if it's an accident. Hutton's narrating register recalls the exquisite poise of Kazuo Ishiguro in his wonderful second book, An Artist of the Floating World. Only Eng sometimes presses too hard on the mist machines. "Veins of lightning flared and throbbed behind the wall of clouds," he writes in one scene, "turning the bruised sky pink, and I felt I was being granted glimpses of blood pulsing silently through the ventricles of an immense human heart."

The Gift of Rain is far more fascinating when it sticks to the ever-tightening mesh of loyalties enveloping Hutton. His family eventually returns from England, by which point he is so enthralled with Endo he has begun sparring at the Japanese consulate without a thought for what that means to people around him. Finally, the Japanese invade Malaysia, and it becomes clear that the price for Hutton's tutorial in aikido was a betrayal so large it will ruin his family's reputation for generations to come. He has accidentally aided the Japanese invasion, and he may have to keep spying, this time on purpose, to help them.

Eng deftly ratchets up of tensions as Hutton works to save his family, and word of ever more atrocities turns the local population against him. It's a dramatic story about a period in this part of the world that hasn't received much attention from novelists, let alone one as proficient as Eng. Still, every now and then, when one is drowning in his denser pages, it's hard not to feel this book would have been more moving, Hutton's guilt over his na?veté more powerful, had Eng found a way to prune back on his descriptions and allowed the reader to imagine some of the island's history, let alone what makes the sound of its rain so melancholy. --John Freeman

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle. He is writing a book on the tyranny of email for Scribner.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781602860742
  • Publisher: Weinstein Books
  • Publication date: 5/5/2009
  • Pages: 450
  • Sales rank: 124,816
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

TAN TWAN ENG was born in Penang, but lived in various places in Malaysia as a child. He studied law at the University of London, and later worked as an advocate and solicitor in one of Kuala Lumpur's most reputable law firms. He also has a first-dan ranking in aikido and is a strong proponent for the conservation of heritage buildings. He has spent the last year traveling around South Africa, living in Cape Town, and has recently returned to Penang to work on his second book.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 36 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 37 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 30, 2011

    highly recommended

    A beautifully crafted, sensitive handling of a unique young man coming of age and awareness of his strengths/weaknesses during the onset of WWII. A part of the world unknown to me and described in the most poetic terms. Race relationships and family ties conflict and intertwine. The theme of rain presented both in sadness and joy.
    I hope the author continues writing more.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2015

    Highly recommended

    Excellent book. The writing was beautiful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2012

    Enchanting read

    This book hooks you into its narrative and leads you through another time and place - several times. The story is gripping and wonderfully written. I could not put it down.

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  • Posted August 16, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:


    OUTSTANDING! Though unnecessary to understand the story, the aurthor makes you WANT to read slowly, that you not miss any nuance, or perfectly turned phrase. I await his next endeavor with the same anticipation as when I waited for The Girl Who Played With Fire.

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  • Posted August 17, 2010

    I loved it!

    I read this book twice; once for content and once for style. It is a lyrical story of the Japanese invasion and occupation of Malaya during WWII. The adolescent protagonist (Phillip Hutton) befriends a Japanese Aikido master (Endo San), developing a deep friendship. Phillip's admiration blinds him to the obvious manipulation in which his friend is engaged. Endo San begins to teach Phillip Aikido. He is a dedicated teacher who has found an equally dedicated student. Much of the story revolves around the use of martial arts and the effects of the discipline required. In exchange, Phillip takes his new friend and Sensei (teacher) around Penang, showing him many places that the Japanese then photographs. Endo San asks many questions (too many....and the reader is beginning to become very suspicious as to motive). Phillip, in his eagerness to please and to show his new friend the depth of his knowledge, tells him anything he wants to know. In the second part of the book Phillip is torn between loyalty to his family and friends and loyalty to his Sensei, finally straddling both sides in a very dangerous maneuver.

    There are many intertwining subplots, stories and fascinating characters as well....too many to go into here. I hope, dear reader, that you enjoy this tale of suspense and love as much as I did.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    The Gift of Rain

    This book held my interest throughout especially because of the use of vocabulary and that I did not know the history of the time and place in which the story takes place. The mastery of the author use of English to express sensitivity, love and hatred was exemplary. I felt every emotion that was written about and was sorry when I finished the book. Kudos to the author for evoking such emotions.

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  • Posted February 22, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Beautiful language and description, imaginative story

    This is not a "feel good" story, in the sense that it covers a troubled time in history and tragic events. The characters are deeply interesting, complex, making choices that have life or death consequences. It describes the cultural differences that can make "honorable behavior" be completely different from one person to another. The author's descriptive language is very compelling, and the story line is thought-provoking.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2010

    Long-Listed for the Booker? Must have been a long, long list this time

    A remarkably disappointing book, The Gift of Rain takes a dramatic historical event--the invasion of Malaysia by the Japanese--and squeezes it flat. The protagonist, like his creator, is a martial arts expert, so everything is an excuse for a fight. It becomes unintentionally comical. Everyone in the family dies, except for the narrator, but there is no sense of tragedy because it's all so expected. There's no real sense of hardship. The audience is supposed to sympathize with the protagonist's conflict since he chooses to "help" the Japanese so he can save his family, but he doesn't save them, and despite the one or two scenes where we see him help the local population, he really is a "running dog." The author tells us this bi-racial character, who is lost between worlds, achieves closure at the end, but mostly the novelist runs out of pages. I have no idea why I bothered finishing this. I think I was giving it a chance until the end since the subject has such potential and because of the Booker Committee's nod, but it is a real waste of time, not to mention the money. The author should stick to his martial arts and forget trying to break into the literary ones. Good prose, vivid characters and a compelling plot are not something you can use the supposed mental discipline of martial arts to achieve.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 20, 2009

    poetically beautiful yet flawed development

    While the setting is exotic and historic with great anticipation, character development is not powerful enough nor is story development flawless. Each episode in the story is well-presented enough to keep you turning pages, yet the protagonist's relation with his contravertial friend, which is the core of the story, is not quite well defined. Worse yet is the most predictable and yet unrealistically sudden shifts of protagonist's loyalty, which totally offsets the poetically romantic lining of the story. It almost felt as if scores of pages preceeding to each turn of his loyalty were omitted by the printer. Without this major flaw, I would definetely have given the book ****, perhaps *****. The author may do better with his second book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2008

    Wonderful, beautifully written book

    This is an incredibly well written book. I found myself re-reading many passages because they were just so rich with meaning and yet so simply stated.Wonderful development of the main character. Also loved the infusion of mysticism. Big fan of historical fiction and this ranks up there with some of the best I've read.Writing this review not to give away any part of this compelling story but because so few people have heard of this book. Can't wait for Tan Twan Eng's next work.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2008

    'The Gift of Rain' rewards the pleasure of reading.

    This wonderful book gives the reader insights into history from the various views of the participants. It demonstrates how war changes relationships and alters families. What is unique is we see these things from a Chinese, Japanese, British and Malayian perspective. We see how actions of a hundred years ago can impact our lives today. I am impatiently waiting for Taw Twan Eng's next book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2008

    Historical Fiction and Relationships

    This was a personal look at the effects of WWII and the Japanese invasion of the small country of Penang, specifically to this one young man and his family. The relationships had strong homosexual undertones which reflected much of the duality within the story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2008

    Remarkable Book

    Thailand and characters come alive in WWII story of the cost of loyalty and honor. Morality and character don't always travel hand in hand in this historical look at an akido mentor and his pupil. I found it hard to put down and was moved by the storyline of a man's quest for self-discovery.

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    Posted January 30, 2011

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    Posted July 26, 2011

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    Posted June 25, 2011

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    Posted December 14, 2009

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    Posted February 8, 2011

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    Posted December 17, 2008

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    Posted April 27, 2011

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 37 Customer Reviews

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