Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Gift of Reviews

Tan Twan Eng's The Gift of Rain has been very well reviewed (with a couple of reservations!) by Su Lin Lewis in the Times Literary Supplement. The piece isn't available to link to online, so here 'tis:

The Japanese Occupation of South-east Asia during the Second World War has been described as the "forgotten wars" of "forgotten armies". The inhabitants of Malaya and Burma, abandoned by their fleeing British colonial rulers, endured great hardships which many did not survive.

Amitav Ghosh makes use of some of the stories of this period in his novel The Glass Palace (2000), in which the rich cast of characters in Rangoon and the rubber plantations of Malaya are connected to India through interracial marriage, migration and exile. In The Gift of Rain, Tan Twan Eng tells a similar tale, focusing on an individual coming-of-age story in a time of shattered innocence.

Philip is a half-Chinese, half-British teenager growing up in Penang, Britain's oldest possession in Malaya, a place where Malays, Chinese, Indians and Europeans live and work in relative social harmony. Tan captures the cosmopolitan spirit of the island on the eve of the Second World War, writing with the affection and insight of a born-and-bred Penangite. He shows that, despite the pretensions of the British ruling class, it was the Chinese tycoons, Malay aristocrats and British businessmen who really ran the island. Philip's father is one of those businessmen, the owner of a successful trading company and a beautiful mansion on the coast. Philip is his fourth child, the "half-caste" product of a second marriage to a Chinese woman which -like many inter- racial unions of the period -sent ripples of unease through European society.

When his mother dies, Philip isolates himself from the rest of his wholly British family, growing up alone until the arrival on his doorstep of a strange Japanese man.

Endo-San's intentions towards the island are shady, but his confidence, refinement and mastery of the Japanese martial art of aikido attract Philip, who becomes his devoted pupil. The boy undergoes a long period of training and learns the importance of trust and self-knowledge. Endo-San teaches him lessons that will help him eventually to reconnect with both sides of his family, British and Chinese, but they are also meant to prepare him for war.

The rediscovery of Philip's Chinese past through the compelling story of a "forgotten emperor" is one of the few entirely fictional moments in a narrative which otherwise depends on a historical backdrop. Connections made between Chinese, Japanese and even British culture, through spirituality and martial arts, suggest the search for a universal humanism underlying the violence of imperialism and war. The atrocities committed by the Japanese make Philip's wartime choices bear gravely on his soul, and his actions have dire consequences for his family and community. Forgiveness and healing come with the older Philip telling his tale to Endo-San's former sweetheart, a Japanese woman who has survived Hiroshima.

The Gift of Rain is a war novel with a personal odyssey at its heart, one that complicates the stark lines of right and wrong during wartime. Tan Twan Eng exposes the way in which the complexities of collaboration and resistance, and the duties to one's country, are made more difficult by a mixed-race heritage and the demands of friendship. There are perhaps too many maudlin allusions to butterflies in the text, and the professions of love between Philip, his teacher, and his family could have been handled with more sophistication, but the storytelling makes up for this, drawing the reader into a web of divided loyalties.

And here's another review/ interview from the South China Morning Post. (Click to enlarge.)

The novel is soon to have it's South African launch. (In marketing terms it's quite an advantage to belong to more than one place!)

Meanwhile many of my friends here are asking if there will be a mass market paperback edition?

(Pic taken at booksigning in a Borders branch, UK)

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting and well-written review...

Lydia Teh said...

Am waiting for the mass market paperback edition. Don't mind paying more than RM50 for a how-to book, say on writing, but for fiction, aduh! I'm too used to the RM30 or less price range for novels.

animah said...

Yes, I really want to buy the book, but not at RM70.

Chet said...

Er, where got paperback for less than RM30, unless as part of Borders' 3 for 2 deals, or at the MPH warehouse sale?

Poppadumdum said...

Wasn't there 25% discount from Kinokuniya?

bibliobibuli said...

there was a copy at kino but copies sold out and after that no discount. then there was a big discount at times for a week or two.

but these grumbly people are a bit slow ...

my book club members set a limit of RM50 per book and mass market paperbacks fall below that

Chet said...

Still got a stack at Popular IKANO.

Anonymous said...

Hello Everyone,

First of all, many thanks for reading (and hopefully, enjoying) The Gift of Rain. The response from readers in Malaysia has been overwhelming. And Sharon, thanks for posting items related to the novel.

My publishers are also concerned about the price factor, as they have to air-freight the books to the distributors in Asia and this adds more to the cost per copy. The trade paperback in fact only came out in the UK in May, and they've tried to do their best by issuing the trade paperback to Asia first in late February, before the UK.

Unfortunately, their publication schedule and promotional plans are such that the mass-market paperback will only be out early next year. They're trying to see if the publication date can be brought forward but can't promise anything yet. The bookshops in South Africa, which are preparing for the launch, are also concerned about the price, and books here cost double of what they cost in Malaysia, because they are so heavily taxed. A normal paperback here costs RM50 on average.

Back to the writing,
Warm regards,
Tan Twan Eng

bibliobibuli said...

thanks for dropping by twan!

chet - is there a discount on those?

Chet said...

10% for Popular members. I'm one. Let me know if you want any copies.

Anonymous said...

15% for Times members..?

bibliobibuli said...

i checked back. times was 25%, kino 20%.

times is always 10% for card members of which i'm one. i think i'm a popular member too but they haven't posted my card ...