Wednesday, May 14, 2008

History AND Geography Lessons

For most of us names like Pearl Harbor, Normandy, Hiroshima are familiar in their history and geography in connection with World War II. But if you had asked me about Malaya I would have drawn a blank on both. For anyone who wishes to know more about this place an answer can be found in Tan Twan Eng’s new novel The Gift of Rain which was nominated for the most recent Man Booker Prize.

Anything beyond the barest description can give away too much. I’m sorry that I knew as much about the book as I did before I read it. Try to avoid reading the book jacket. The story is set on the island of Penang off the coast of Malaya – the same island where the author was born. So you can understand why the descriptions of weather, flora, architecture, cultural divisions, etc. have such richness in their detail and feel so authentic.

The narrator Philip Hutton was born in the 1920’s and lived his entire life in Penang. He was the child of a British father and a Chinese mother. Toward the end of his life he is persuaded to tell the story of his role on the island during World War II – hence the book. The title comes from his visit to a soothsayer who says that he was born with the gift of rain. As we know, rain can be a blessing or a curse depending on the circumstances. An individual’s actions can be interpreted in different ways depending on the vantage point. In addition to the embedded history and geography lessons there is also a fascinating introduction to the martial art of aikido.

It’s been a long time since I have stayed up past my bedtime to follow a storyline but I did just that on three successive nights. Now that I have finished the book, it will be many more nights and days that I reflect on the moral dilemmas presented to the characters, the different response each of them chose and their reasons for doing so. I’m not sure what choices I would have made. And isn’t that one of the reasons that we read: to examine the challenges of others that we may come to know and strengthen ourselves?

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