The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

Appreciating the rain is something I have learned relatively recently and how appropriate that I have a vision of it today, accompanied by the growing rumble of distant thunder and the occasional flash of lightning.

Until I lived in the south of France I had never experienced a period of two months continuous sunshine without a drop of rain or threat of a grey cloud on the horizon and so I began to understand and live with the dry and dusty consequence, those vast blue skies compensating for the lack of green, for without moisture there is no grass, no lush green of the variety that grows, horizontal, vertical, almost everywhere in that land of the long white cloud of my past, Aotearoa; growth that without vigilance would suffocate all that man has tried to impose in its place.

Children here are a reminder of this different relationship to rain, they adore it and can relate to Tess, the protagonist of Karen Hesse’s wonderful children’s book Come on, rain!  Tess pleads to the sky as she, her friends, her mother and all the plant life around them swelter and suffer in the interminable heat, hoping for some respite.

I stare out over rooftops,

past chimneys into the way off distance.

And that’s when I see it coming,

clouds rolling in

grey clouds, bunched and bulging

A creeper of hope circles ’round my bones.

“Come on, rain!” I whisper.

The Gift of Rain however is the title of Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel.  His second novel The Garden of Evening Mists’ was short listed for the Man Booker Prize this year and after reading a review of that book, it was suggested I should start with his début novel The Gift of Rain, longlisted for the Booker in 2007.

An ancient soothsayer once told Philip Arminius Khoo-Hutton, the half-Chinese, youngest son of a British business man:

You were born with the gift of rain. Your life will be abundant with wealth and success. But life will test you greatly.

Remember – the rain also brings the flood.

She also tells him that his companion Endo-san, his Japanese sensei, a Japanese diplomat, mentor and master of Aikido, that they have a past together in a different time and that they have a greater journey to make after this life. These are words the young man has no wish to hear, nor believes, though they will stay with him and he will see them with greater clarity as an old man, the man we meet in the opening pages in fact, as the story is narrated from dual perspectives, one as an older man recounting his life and relationship with Endo-san to an elderly Japanese widow who once loved Endo-san and has travelled from a small village in Japan to seek him out before her own death, and the second perspective when is that young man.

As Philip shares his and Endo-san’s story, we meet him as a young man living in Penang, a Malayan country ruled by the British with strong Chinese, Indian and Siamese influences.

His story unfolds in the wake of the Japanese occupation of Malaysia in World War II when Philip finds that his knowledge of Japanese culture and his close friendship with his teacher can be of benefit to protect his family, though that is not how they or many others in this mixed community see his actions and involvement. He is not always convinced of his own argument and there will be much suffering in consequence.

The story navigates a complex web of connections that crosses cultures and countries, tests friendships, loyalties, duty, offers opportunity and witnesses’ betrayals. It will keep you thinking for some time after the last page is turned.

Duty is a concept created by emperors and generals to deceive us into performing their will. Be wary when duty speaks, for it often masks the voice of others.

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30 thoughts on “The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

  1. I know too much of the gift of rain here in Normandy. I have the impression that that’s all we get here. When it rains it pours. That’s why it’s so green here. Somehow I haven’t adapted to this normandy weather. I prefer the short violent thunderstorms of my hometown New Orleans. Needless to say I do like the noise of falling rain and the coziness it makes me feel in my home. It makes me want to curl up with a good book in front of my fireplace.

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  2. thanks Claire. The gift of rain is just that. As you know, we have been having storms in the neighborhood this past week. Do you want to go to Book andBar with me this Thurs? The book up for discussion is Ann Patchett’s ‘STATE OF WONDER’. I’d write her but the last time I did I had to jump through hoops because she got all famous and stuff and now she hides out from publicity.

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  3. I found this one of your best reviews of late. Perhaps you liked another review better,but for me it had all the elements that keep me reading…..
    1. draw me in with something personal
    2. enhance the review with a few strong quotes that make me think..
    make me curious.
    3. use cross references of past prizes or books by the same author
    4. most importantly,…you don’t tell the story as some reviewers
    do in their enthusiasm.
    I have the book The Garden of Evening Mists…can I dive in or is it essential to begin with The Gift of Rain?

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    • Thank you Nancy, it didn’t feel especially like one of the best, I don’t know that I ever feel like that about what I write, but I always try to share something of what you might expect without giving away the story or even the small anecdotes that made a story compelling.

      I don’t believe it is essential to read this book first, I’d read what you have, just like I intend to read Hilary Mantel’s book that’s on the shelf A Place of Greater Safety before the one that won the prize! 🙂

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  4. So many things about your post drew me in, from the rain that we need for our tank, and living by the sea on the east side of NZ we get far less rain than everyone else…
    The book sounded so intriguing and really resonated with me having lived in Penang and Malaysia for three years at the beginning of the fifties, while my husband has been to Japan many times both for Aikido and kendo.
    It sounds like a fascinating read.

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    • I know the importance of rain, my Dad always kept a rain gauge and every day measured the millimetres for the metereological society and being a farmer of course it is critical for growth so it’s not just small talk, its a serious topic of conversation, every time we speak or write to each other.

      I’m intrigued by Tan Twan Eng’s relationship to Malaysian, British and Japanese culture and it seems his second novel also touches on connections between Malaysia and Japan.

      I do enjoy books that address those cultural connections and also the question of identity, whether through mixed race characters, or characters who live in another culture and find it changes their perceptions of themselves and where they are from. It teaches us so much.

      I think with your connections Valerie, this could be an interesting read and author for you to discover.

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  5. Like so many of my favorite illustrated children’s books, ‘Come on, Rain’ really strikes me as a poem stretched across the pages. No surprise, since Karen Hesse’s ‘Out of the Dust’ (for a middle-grade population) is a story told in free verse. To extend my poetic frame of mine, what would draw me to ‘The Gift of Rain’ is the underlying metaphor/symbolism suggested by the title. That’s probably no surprise to you.

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  6. I love the last quotation:
    “Duty is a concept created by emperors and generals to deceive us into performing their will. Be wary when duty speaks, for it often masks the voice of others.”
    I often wonder as well. But until I become the emperor or general and trying to pay my bills and keeping my livelihood, I think I’ll perform my duty at work for the time being! 😦

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  7. I have to say we have been receiving the gift of rain most bountifully here in Wellington for the last while… But, of course, we cannot complain. There are places that need it and don’t get it.

    Duty as a device by which others persuade the unwilling to do their work? Likely true.

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  8. I’m curious why it was suggested that you read The Gift of Rain before The Garden of Evening Mists? I’ve been planning to read The Garden of Evening Mists first. Maybe I should rethink that though?

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  9. Pingback: Book Review: The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng | Ragdoll Books Blog

  10. Hi Claire,
    I enjoyed your post. I remember my summer working in the Trinity Alps. It never rained once. I never even saw a cloud. The only change in the weather was when forest fires created a haze. I really missed the rain. It is raining tonight in Seattle, but I have turned on the fairy lights, lit the candles, and am feeling very happy and cozy.

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    • I do believe we are fortunate when we have experienced both, I also remember not really realising I had missed something until my return years later, when I looked up into the sky and saw our big white fluffy clouds in New Zealand, literally the day I returned after 2 years living in England, I told my brother (who had not yet been abroad), wow, look at those amazing clouds! He asked me if I was feeling ok. 🙂

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  11. What is the symbolism or meaning of the title? Why is the book called The Gift of Rain? and what does the fortune teller trying to say when she says that Phillip has the gift of rain?

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    • I think the gift of rain represents abundance, because rain permits growth, water provides nourishment, so perhaps the protagonist has the gift of bringing what is needed for things to thrive, however there is a flip side or a caution, because too much rain brings the flood and that can destroy everything. So Phillip has the potential to become a success, (his ability to navigate between two cultures) but there is an inherent danger in his gift.

      Well, that’s my take on it, but I’m no literary scholar. Does that make sense?

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  12. Just one more question though, I really like how you put your thoughts into words. It’s very easy to understand! Having read the novel, what would you say the main theme statement is?

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    • Well, you’ll have to create that in your own words, but if I were to guess what the major themes were, I would say love and honour and that these are explored on many levels, i.e. within the family, with the teacher, and in relation to culture and country.

      The protagonist is born and lives between two families and two cultures and will discover both the strengths and weaknesses of being caught between the two. Is he enemy or ally, friend or traitor? His ability to blend into either side will leave him adrift, belonging to neither.

      Good luck, I hope you can make something out of that. What are you studying?

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      • Thank you, I’ll try to come up with my own statement. Yeah I think those two are major themes displayed in the novel. I’m going to study Business!

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