The Gift of Rain
by Tan Twan Eng
Mr Tan starts out with a brilliant set of ingredients: the island of Penang immediately before and during the Second World War and the Japanese occupation; a handsome Eurasian boy, just coming of age, who unlike most of his kind is from the highest ranks of both English and Chinese society; a mysterious Japanese diplomat who rents a small island belonging to the boy’s father and proceeds to teach the boy Aikido (he is, of course, a Japanese advance agent and spy); tropical gardens and jungles, misty hillsides, exotic food and culture, strange Oriental faiths and philosophies; the Straits of Malacca; the shades of Conrad and Maugham and Theroux. It should be a recipe for dynamite.
Instead we get a damp squib. And no wonder, because Mr Tan is as weepy as a girl. He’s great on evoking the more conventionally exotic elements of Malaysia’s multi-ethnic culture, a whiz at describing old Chinese temples and picturesque Penang houses, excels at creating pretty little Merchant-Ivory images (handsome English boy going off to war in his sailor suit and the family Rolls, that kind of thing), but when he gets on to dialogue and character he’s a drip.
His drippiness is somewhat restrained in the first few chapters. His descriptions of the boy and his sensei at practice, and the martial-arts content in general, are workmanlike and quite vivid; apparently Mr Tan is some kind of Aikido master himself. But after a while his intially strong and elegant writing degenerates into something that resembles airline-magazine travelogue crossed with chick-lit, and there it stays. His hero is a sentimental young bore, much given to introspection of a rather pathetic sort, and forever melting with love for his father, his late mother, his grandfather, his siblings and above all for his sensei, for whom he seems to nurse a strong but unconscious homosexual crush (one which seems to be reciprocated, though as at page 278, where I stopped reading, all they’d done was beat each other up and then get misty at each other). It isn’t at all clear that Mr Tan intends us to take his hero as gay, though since the story is about a youth on the verge of manhood and there are lots of personable men around him but no female interest in his life whatsoever, one is entitled draw one’s own conclusons.
It’s a pity the author couldn’t have been a little braver about this; it would have helped the book a lot. Perhaps there’s a revelation at the end — big deal, if so. What really makes The Gift of Rain a drag is that Mr Tan doesn’t know how to tell a story, and his writing slowly collapses into a flabby, cliché-strewn mess.
Just before I gave up reading, the author had attempted a grand set-piece: a party thrown by the hero’s father, who is one of the biggest English tycoons in Malaya, and to which all the active characters in the story so far are invited, along with most of the rest of Penang society. This is where the author’s powers of description, so puissant when it comes to delineating marble fountains and places of worship with snakes in the rafters, should have been working overtime; instead, the party is given short shrift, turned into a hunt by our doughty heroes for a Man with a Bomb, who turns out, in true Boy’s Own Paper style, to be a cowardly Indian Communist with greasy hair whom everyone happily beats up, to the evident approval of the author. At one point he does give us a brief look at the other guests diverting themselves (in the absence of their saboteur-hunting hosts) with a drunken brawl, which is broken up by the daughter of the house firing a gun into the air – at which the various diplomats, tycoons, newspaper editors and other pillars of society stop hitting each other and go home.
I thought the real action (the Japanese invasion) would start after that — I was already more than halfway through the book — but instead the author took me strolling down Armenian Street to show me at yet another exquisite Penang house. I left him and his grandfather at the gate, and tiptoed away to write this review.
Apparently this was longlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize. Must have been a bloody long list.