Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

Finished my first book for the #SEAreadingchallenge . The Gift of Rain is a WWII novel set in Penang, by Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng.

The Gift of Rain follows Phillip Hutton, a Eurasian boy who doesn't feel like he belong. One day, he meets a Japanese named Hayato Endo and begins studying the art of Aikijutsu (Aikido) as well as Japanese culture. However, when WWII comes, Phillip has to make a difficult choice about which choice to support.

I had really high hopes for this, but ended up talking a long time to warm up to the book. In fact, I wanted to stop reading a few times, but decided to continue for the challenge. I have a few complaints about the book, such as:

First, Penang never really comes alive. There is some description, largely in the latter half, but I never felt like I was in Malaysia, unlike when I was reading The Ghost Bride. In fact, I felt the presence of China more strongly than Malaysia, despite the fact that it only has one chapter dedicated to it.

Second, I never felt Phillips exclusion. True, he complained a lot about feeling like he didn't belong, but all I saw was him holding himself apart, rather than society rejecting him.

Finally, the use of non-English words felt very grating. Despite the fact that the book is loosely framed as a reminiscence of the past to a Japanese lady, every time a Japanese word appears for the first time, a translation always follows. If you're telling a story to a Japanese person, I highly doubt you need to translate the Japanese words. Perhaps the author should have chosen a different listener. But really, the translations were unnecessary, because the words were either going to be used enough times that a reader could infer their meaning, or could be omitted entirely.

Luckily, the book got better in the second half, when the Japanese occupied Penang. I thought the moral question that the book brought out was interesting - is it better to work with the enemy and try to save lives, or is it better to resist and risk the killing of innocents? The addition of this dilemma made the second half a lot more enjoyable and way more gripping than the first half. So while the first half felt very slow, the second half sped by.

Overall, this is a decent WWII novel, though I wouldn't read it to get a feel of Malaysia (it feels like it could take place anywhere in Asia). It's got a slow start, but if you're willing to persevere, the second half is much stronger and raises some interesting questions.

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