The Gift of Rain, a beautifully written novel by the Malayan writer Tan Twan Eng, explores the world of Malaysia during World War II. Its hero, Philip, half Chinese and half English, is born in Penang, and does not feel he belongs anywhere. He’s not accepted by the Chinese culture in Malaysia, nor the Brits. So he bonds up with a Japanese teacher of aikido, who does accept him, even becomes, it is implied, his lover, but has mysterious and disturbing links to the increasingly militant and aggressive Japanese government.
The characterization is excellent, the situations powerful and suspenseful, the world realistic, and a beautiful reflection of life. Heck, the symbols and undercurrents are amazing. I admired all that. And the main issue for the lead character was masterful: when Japan invades Malaysia, Philip is torn between loyalties to family, country, and his sensei (teacher). And he finds himself in a position where perhaps he can protect people. Or be seen as a betrayer of them.
It’s a great conundrum, an agonizing position to put any character in. And while Philip tells his story long after the war, so we know he survived, to my way of thinking this is nevertheless a tragedy. In a sense he does not survive the war. And many of his family and friends are killed.
So in one sense, I got a bit of a self-revelation here, discovering how much such a deep tragedy is not to my taste, no matter how well-rendered. The hero does have a tragic flaw, misplaced loyalty, and it brings down his world. So if you like that sort of thing, this may be the book for you.
For me, partly maybe it’s my distaste for blunt violence. And the lack of heroic actions by the main character throughout the book. But why this book failed to appeal to me, when I liked the even more graphically violent The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, I can’t exactly say. Maybe I had more sympathy for the characters there. They were trying to survive, they were trying to protect their friends. They performed acts of bravery, despite how much O’Brien discounted that impulse in his narration.
In this book, one character is actively undermining a whole country, working to ensure most of its people will die brutally. So he’s no hero to me. Another collaborates with the enemy, willingly serves as a propaganda tool. Yes, he does try to save people, a little, but he is singularly ineffectual. Mostly he just wants the forgiveness of the people he watches die. Others are plain victims. I needed a more obvious hero to root for.
Maybe I’m too demanding a reader. I kept thinking, yes, all of these things happened in World War II, or similar actions anyway, but we have known that for decades. So I didn’t feel I was learning anything new about how people act. For me, I want a novel that stands up for justice, that can show us a way to attain it, or at least strive for it. Brutality and injustice are hard, and I don’t find them news. A way out of such cruelty, even for just a few, now that’s something worth writing about. We need beacons these days. Guides. Hope, even. I did not feel that, reading this book.
Happy Reading, Happy Writing,
P M F Johnson
Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancee Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.
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