The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng is a novel of impressive range and proportions. The book divides itself across two separate narratives. The elderly Philip Hutton, the son of a succesful British Colonial businessman on the island of Penange in Malaysia and his second Chinese wife is visited by a terminally ill Japanese woman. Their developing friendship forms the first narrative. The second narrative is the one that Philip relates to her, the story of his activities immediately prior to and during the Japanese ocupation of the island during the Second World War. The book is partly about the interface between two very different colonial cultures and the resulting tensions and, of course, Philip himself symbolises those very tensions and contradictions.
But this is not a novel that simply compares a brutal Japanese colonialism with a benign British one and it provides no easy answers. Whilst the Japanese atrocities are laid out without pulling any punches, the Japanese are also portrayed as a highly cultured, moral and spiritual people. And that appalling contradiction is what provides the powerful context for many of the other issues tackled in this book. It is a book about identity and belonging, loyalty and treachery, principles and pragmatism, colonialism and its legacy. It is a book that may ultimately declare its optimism, but only at a price. It is a book that lays testament to the fact that in exterme times, humans behave in extreme ways, commiting great acts of heroism and selflessness, as well as great acts of brutality and barbarism.