Book looks at many forms of love and duty

May 19, 2008 12:22:59 PM PDT
"The Gift of Rain" by Tan Twan Eng: Set on the Malaysian island of Penang in 1939

"The Gift of Rain" offers a look at the life of 16-year-old Philip Hutton - half British, half Chinese - who feels like an outsider in his family. Lonely and alienated, he strikes up an unexpected friendship that will set the course of his life.

Philip and Michiko Murakami both love a man they met in their youth and both lost long ago. Michiko visits Philip in his old age. In her dying days, she shows up on his doorstep and they share their stories, learning more about themselves and the nature of love along the way.

The man they both loved is Hayto Endo, a Japanese diplomat who moves onto a small island near Philip's house in the days before World War II. Philip finds the acceptance he craves in Endo and begins to be trained by him in the discipline of aikido, which teaches not only a deadly martial art but a rigid code of honor and loyalty.

As the friendship deepens, to the disapproval of Philip's father and sister, Philip shows Endo around Penang, pointing out the best views of the harbor, the railroads, the island's roads.

When the war finally hits Penang and the Japanese invade, Philip realizes he has been used by his friend and teacher, who is a Japanese spy. His bitterness is not something he can maintain, however. While his brother goes to war and his sister and father fiercely resist the invaders, Philip chooses another path, deciding to work with the Japanese in the hope that he can thereby protect his family.

"I was choosing a path that had the strongest chance of saving all of us, all of my family, and I would take it," Philip says. "There was a war on and surely no one could blame me - or would even remember when it was all over."

Of course, people did care and remember.

For one thing, many feel he is too eager to help the Japanese. The first thing Philip is told to do by his new masters is show his respect to a picture of the emperor. "I knew what was required and so I bowed low and respectfully to it."

Eng's graceful prose evokes a time and place that is little known or remembered now, making it both exotic and familiar, and his beautiful narrative is woven with strong images and characters.

He wonders between extraordinary beliefs - "I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me" - and familiar emotions.

"The Gift of Rain" is a gift to read.

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