In the Temple of Azure Cloud on the Malayan island of Penang, pit vipers curl around pillars, incense holders, roof beams. They hang from the temple furniture and draw in the smoke with stinging tongues. A woman, heavy and hot, her tired skin flaking, trails her finger across the creased lines in worshippers’ palms. She fans herself, this fortune-teller, and deals out kismet in Hokkien dialect. Philip Hutton suffers from a particularly ancient prophecy; the snake seer forecast it before he was born. He will betray his family, ruin them. But he is not afraid: “We always have a choice. Nothing is fixed or permanent.”
An archaic contest affects the whole of Tan Twan Eng’s ambitious debut novel: the struggle between predestination, or fate, and free will, the capacity to determine the course of one’s own experience. It is the kind of weighty, well-worn opposition that tends to surface in martial arts sagas. And on the face of it, The Gift of Rain belongs to the genre: a tale of sensei and student that begins and ends with a couple of long, low bows.
Certain of the characters have known each other in previous incarnations, some have psychic visions. But beneath the tired philosophical current is another story, a gripping war epic about the Japanese invasion of Malaya. Eng’s spiritual detours are nothing but a diversion. Of much more substance than his personages’ grievous past lives is the narrative that unfolds in this lifetime.
The half English, half Chinese lastborn son of a rich trading family, as lonely as he is confused, is schooled in the ways of the humble warrior. Philip Hutton meets his sensei, Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat and aikijutsu master, at sixteen. The bond they develop is so profound it often overwhelms Philip’s allegiances to his own father and siblings (his Chinese mother died of malaria).
In fact, the teacher-pupil relationship verges on the erotic: “He attacked me again and again, pressing into me, sinking into me with such intensity, as though he wanted to imprint a part of him in me, to leave a portion of his soul in mine.” When the Japanese army finally occupies the country and Philip understands that he has unwittingly served as an accomplice to a mentor who is also a spy, he is irresolute. The adolescent boy spends the rest of the war trying to negotiate between loyalties to the Japanese and the resistance. Loyalty to one party demands disloyalty to the other. At its most transfixing, The Gift of Rain is a chronicle of infidelity.
It is a book that reads much of the time like the transcript of a badly dubbed kung fu film. Apart from some striking snippets — Endo-san’s sword “rose up in an arc described by his hands”, Towkay Yeap’s “words had bones in them”, “the sea was so bright it was almost without color, just a shifting sheet of light” — the dialogue is wooden, the prose graceless. Too frequently, the sole purpose of character conversation is to tease out dry historical background.
But The Gift Rain begins to move so urgently towards its midpoint that the words themselves drop out of focus. In its entirety the book calls to mind a portrait of Penang and the events of its capture that can only be called cinematic. The language is awkward — sometimes it feels as though the author is trying out terms he has only just learned — but manages to be remarkably evocative. We see the Japanese propaganda pamphlets, floating towards the trees like white petals. We see the men and women of Malaya searching for sea creatures in the mud alongside greedy birds, lighting firecrackers at village weddings, digging their own graves. Eng’s work does not hang on the peculiar or formidable phrase. Its strength is large-scale.
It is clear that Japan will invade Malaya. A 72-year-old Philip, our narrator and a seamless adult adaptation of his younger self, mentions the crusade as early as the fifth page. “Taken at the last party we ever had,” he says of a photograph on the wall. “Before the war wrecked everything.” We know from the start that every one of Philip’s family members will die, and that at the hands of his sensei’s countrymen.
We know, even, that some of the Occupation’s survivors will consider him a war criminal. But somehow — perhaps it is the sharp pacing — there is trepidation, and the anxiety it inspires in the reader is the novel’s greatest draw. “I don’t know,” Endo tells Philip’s father when asked about an impending attack, and we are relieved, so much do we want to believe him. It is the mark of a fine storyteller, this ability to fabricate a terrifying suspense where there are no surprises.
The high-flown martial arts scenes peter out. Eng’s ideology of reincarnation — “And there are our lives yet to be lived. And our prints will again cross one another’s … It means we cannot change anything. Everything has already been set out for us” — begins to flag. In the bowels of war, the narrative becomes engrossingly barebones. When finally Philip confronts the mercilessness of soldiers, the strewn and ruined bodies, his internal dialogue quietens. There is no more room for spiritual outbursts or soul searching. These moments of brutality, stripped and empty of excess, are formidable.
At the mound I found a hole and inside I found Ming. She had dug up Ah Hock and turned him over, so that his eyes stared through me and beyond to the sky. She lay next to him, her eyes open to tender rain, her arms around her husband. I could not see her blood, but I smelled it. I went into the hole and grasped her wrists, slippery from her opened veins. She was still breathing, her eyelids flickering once, twice, like a statue that had turned to flesh but was now reverting to stone. I searched in my pocket for a handkerchief to bind her wrists but the cloth blackened immediately. She shook her head. ‘Stay with me,’ she whispered. I held her hand and sat down in the cold mud.
In the first pages of The Gift of Rain, a desolate woman turns up at an aged Philip Hutton’s doorstep. Michiko Murakami has come to pay her respects to Endo, who is buried on the island across the water from Philip’s home, and to hear the old man’s story. The conceit is strained, this beginning fraught with a dramatic tension the book has not yet earned. And the ending is equally disappointing, the final pages a philosophical mess that seems to indicate that the author was exhausted.
But somewhere in between Eng manipulates his reader with a facility. The Japanese army has come and gone. Philip has made irreversible choices, both upright and devastating. There is nothing left for us to dread. And so for dread Eng substitutes loss. We have watched Philip, in the years before the war, come to terms with his otherness and gradually find kinship with his British family. Now we witness his complete solitude. Philip Hutton survives the Japanese Occupation; we do not have to mourn for him. But we mourn with him, and that is almost more disheartening. “The hollowness in me expanded; I shivered all over and clenched my fists as I finally let myself grieve.”