Insights balanced by melodrama and cliche
WHEN it was long- listed for the Man Booker Prize this year, The Gift of Rain by Penang- born Tan Twan Eng was one of four books that caused a stir, debut novels that pushed works by J. M. Coetzee, Thomas Keneally, Doris Lessing, Michael Ondaatje and Graham Swift off the 2007 short list.
The chairman of Man Booker judges, Howard Davies, said the long list was chosen because the books were ‘‘ well crafted and will appeal to a wide readership’’. Significantly, he did not say each was a potential winner.
At £ 50,000, and one of the most respected fiction prizes in the world, one would expect the competition for the Man Booker to be fierce and its long list ( the best 13 out of 110 entries) to be pretty well flawless in literary terms. While The Gift of Rain is at times beautifully written, occasionally arresting and overall a good read, it is hardly Man Booker- winning material.
My diagnosis is this: the book doesn’t know whether to be a literary novel set in Penang during World War II or an Asian action blockbuster film script. Each of its poignant and insightful achievements is balanced by a dreadful melodrama or woeful cliche.
Yes, I know, editing of long- winded and popularity- seeking novelists is unfashionable these days. But, first, let me say briefly what this novel is about.
In 1939, Phillip Hutton is a 16- year- old Penang Eurasian, the disoriented fourth child of a successful but emotionally distant English businessman who married the now- deceased daughter of a Chinese Ipoh tin- mines magnate.
Trying to find where he belongs, Phillip befriends a Japanese diplomat, the spy Hayato Endo, who rents a house on Phillip’s father’s property. Endo teaches Phillip the martial art of aikido, along with insights into Japanese language and culture. Endo also seduces Phillip and they become not just sword- wielding martial arts combatants but also lovers. When war breaks out, Endo emerges as one of the powerful men in charge of the Japanese occupation of Malaya and Phillip — through loyalty to Endo, love and in hope of saving the Hutton family — decides to collaborate with the Japanese.
In the rest of the story, Phillip Hutton works as official interpreter for the Japanese, becomes an ambiguous Asian Oskar Schindler ( working to save people via his access to Japanese execution lists), sees his siblings die, joins the guerillas, watches as his father is executed in place of himself, has to dispatch his sensei, Endo, by the sword, and much more.
It’s a complex novel dealing with a rich field of events and issues. But, still, it’s terminally flawed. For example, The Gift of Rain is punctuated with aikijitsu fights. Almost every time a new character is introduced, Phillip Hutton ( our British- Chinese narrator) fights him: with stances, throws, blocks, punches, twirls, kicks to the groin, the full Asian- action violence experience.
Phillip fights and throws his mentor, Endo; his best friend, Kon; his best friend’s mentor, Tanaka; as well as other Japanese invaders. Phillip shares with his father, Noel, a fight against militant Penang dockworkers and even fights his Chinese grandfather, Mr Khoo. Finally Phillip fights Michiko, a 70- year- old woman. The only main characters our hero doesn’t fight are his father, aunt and sister.
I suspect ( in my imagining the progress of this novel’s manuscript) that Tan — a writer with a first- dan ranking in aikido who is also a solicitor by profession — took on his editor in a writerly fight. It’s a pity the editor lost or didn’t engage. It would have been a battle for literary excellence.
What was the author thinking? What advice was he given? The Gift of Rain has missed being a pre- eminent novel about Penang during World War II because its publishers allowed it to sink into wordiness, genre melodrama, and cliche.
And what has happened to the British literary establishment such that it can long list this work for the Man Booker? Saying Tan’s novel is a commendable first outing is one thing. Suggesting it may bag the big one is entirely another.
Nigel Krauth is a writer who lives in Queensland.