Casualties of War

Sunday, December 21, 2008


By Tan Twan Eng

Weinstein. 435 pp. $ 23.95

Ironies and contradictions are at the heart of A Gift of Rain, Tan Twan Eng's ambitious, expansive first novel set in Penang, Malaya, during the Japanese occupation. Philip Hutton, the bright and serious-minded son of a Chinese mother and a British father, is the head of Hutton & Sons. The Huttons are among Penang's oldest and wealthiest trading families, and Philip lives with his father and three older half-siblings in colonial splendor, attended by faithful retainers and cocooned in privilege. But Philip has always felt like an outsider, a misfit. As the offspring of a mixed marriage, he is the only "half-caste" in a thoroughly English family.

He is befriended by Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat three times his age, who lives alone on a small island leased from Philip's father. The descendant of an old Samurai family in disgrace since his own father disagreed with the emperor's military policy, Endo-san is skilled in aikijutsu, one of the oldest martial arts. As their secret friendship develops, Endo-san becomes Philip's sensei, training him in the principles and techniques of aikijutsu, introducing him to the mysteries of Zen and reincarnation, and teaching him to read and write Japanese.

Inevitably, as war breaks out and the island's fears of a Japanese invasion are realized, Philip's friendship with Endo-san becomes increasingly dangerous and fraught with irreconcilable conflicts involving duty, loyalty, love and destiny.

The author of this sensitive, humane and resolutely sedate novel is a young Malaysian lawyer and black belt in aikido who writes with deep insight into the history and topography of his native homeland and with deep feeling for its natural beauties.

I only wish he could have been as attentive to his characters, who seem as heavy of speech as they are nimble of movement, and given to such utterances as, "You have brought the rain, and for this I thank you." Or: "I was told you have had some lessons. I would be very much obliged if you show me some of them." It isn't the stilted dialogue alone that does these characters a disservice. Buried in this saga of betrayal, deceit and oppression is another story of betrayal, deceit and repression -- the story of an impossible, doomed love between a young boy and an older man. In hinting at, rather than bringing to light, this poignant reality, the author has created another kind of ambiguity, one that obscures rather than advances a riveting tale.

-- Wendy Law-Yone, a Burmese-American novelist living in England.

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