Dublin Unitarian Book Club’s
choice for June 2021.
The Gift of Rain
Tan Twan Eng
At the heart of this novel which is set in Penang, Malaya in 1939 is the story of a complicated friendship between two people, Philip Hutton and Hayito Endo.
Philip Hutton is the fourth child of the very successful businessman, Noel Hutton whose family have been trading in Malaya since the eighteenth century. Philip’s mother Yulian was Noel’s second wife. She was the daughter of a Chinese emigrant who did not approve of the marriage and so disowned her, she died when Philip was a young child. In 1939 Philip was a sixteen year old boy who was lost between his two identities, English and Chinese. While his father and siblings are away in Europe he meets Hayito Endo who is a Japanese diplomat. Philip had remained in Penang under the watchful eyes of the Chinese servants in order to prepare for school.
Hayito is renting a small island from Noel Hutton which is close to their plantation home called Istana. He befriends Philip and introduces him to the martial art of Aikido. As their friendship grows Philip agrees to become Hayito’s student of Aikido , a commitment not taken lightly as the discipline is hard mentally and physically and demands great loyalty and trust between teacher ‘Sensai’ and student. Hayito helps Philip discover who he is, he arranges for him to meet his Chinese grandfather, Khoo Wu An, who is now full of remorse and tells Philip of his story as a Chinese emigrant. Philip becomes more aware of his Chinese heritage and the Chinese community who are now reeling as they hear of the horrors and cruelties from home of the Japanese invasion of their country. The Huttons return from Europe just as war breaks out. They see a great change in Philip physically and in attitude but do not know it is due to the tutelage of Endo San. Tensions are running high in Malaya as there are fears of a Japanese invasion. Tensions are also running high in the Hutton household as neither Philip’s father and family or new found Chinese ‘family’ approve of his friendship with Endo San. This conflict of loyalties for Philip becomes all too real when the Japanese do invade and Endo San’s true identity is revealed as being a spy sent to pave the way for the successful invasion of Penang.
As in all stories of war there are no winners. Philip tries to save his family and friends by becoming a collaborator with the Japanese and Endo San thus further alienating himself from his family. He is at the same time acting as a double agent, passing information on to the resistance movement but this does not become apparent until much later.
There is Eastern mystical elements woven into this story. Fortune tellers and Chinese superstition feature as determining factors to decisions that are made regarding their lives, such as the Grandfather’s rejection of his daughter’s marriage. Endo San tells Philip that they had known each other over many lifetimes. “ How did our lives end” asks Philip. “ In pain and unfulfilled…we are forced to live again and again, to meet, to resolve our lives”. This prepares the reader for a fateful end to their story.
This reader found this fatalistic element of the story a bit unpalatable as it suggests that Endo San had no choice and felt justified as the fates had already decided that he would meet and befriend Philip, become his Sensai of Aikido, and teach him Japanese language and culture so he would be prepared for the cruelties of war and the hard decisions he would have to make.
Some of our book club readers found this reincarnation element gave more depth to the story of their relationship whereas I felt it glossed over the very human and awful thing that Endo San, a reluctant spy and good guy under normal circumstances had to do by cultivating this friendship in order to carry out his duty to his country in a time of war.
The author does not shy away from describing the cruelties of war where villages are destroyed and people are murdered and tortured. There are plenty of twists and turns to the many character’s stories. Some of us enjoyed these segways of stories within the story.
Most of us felt that the martial art Aikido training and fight scenes a bit too overweight but enjoyed some lovely descriptions of Penang’s jungle and environment.
Despite some of my own reservations regarding some elements of the book I found it a good read, a bit lengthy, but an interesting part of history as a backdrop to describe eastern and western cultures and their differences and also similarities when it comes to family, duty, love, patriotism and loyalty.
Dublin Unitarian Church