In­sights bal­anced by melo­drama and cliche

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Nigel Krauth

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.

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