Globe South Book Buzz

A moving mix of history, philosophy

By Nancy Harris
August 11, 2011

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Milton resident Julie Gannon is the owner and operator of the Toy Box, an independent shop in Hanover opened in 1976 by her mother.

Between the challenges of running the toy store and taking care of an active 7-year-old son, Gannon says, she can read only a few pages late at night. But each year the former English major at Denison University eagerly looks ahead to vacation as her real chance to indulge.

More often than not, Gannon prefers to read historical fiction.

“I really enjoy reading about someone’s personal journey, particularly when it occurs in a setting or period of history that I previously knew little about.’’

One book that fits this bill perfectly, she says, is Tan Twan Eng’s “The Gift of Rain.’’

His debut novel, published in 2008, is a complex tale of intrigue and betrayal that unfolds on the Malaysian island of Penang during the brutal Japanese occupation in World War II.

Rich in detail of the history of Japanese imperialism in colonial Malaya, the story draws the reader into one man’s struggle at a pivotal moment in history.

At the start of the book, we meet Philip Hutton, a former champion and master teacher of the martial art of aikido, when a dying Japanese woman returns a sword he had not seen for 50 years. Philip is an old man, and he tells the woman a story that begins in 1939, when he was 16.

The son of a wealthy British trader and a Chinese mother, Philip finds himself alienated from the only home he has ever known. With his mixed heritage, he is shunned by both the island’s British elite and its Asian community, and is frequently left alone when his father and brothers travel abroad for business.

Lonely and uncertain of his place in either culture, Philip befriends an enigmatic Japanese diplomat, Hayato Endo, who rents a house from Philip’s father.

In Endo, Philip discovers the caring father figure he longs for, and finds himself being trained by him in the discipline of Zen Buddhism, as well as aikido and the Japanese language.

For the first time, Philip is given a sense of grounding and purpose. In exchange, he offers to educate Endo in the British colony’s history - and secrets.

Yet Philip soon discovers a painful reality, that the gifts from his beloved friend and teacher carry a great price - Endo is actually a spy for Japan, gathering information for an impending invasion.

When the Japanese attack Malaya, Philip is forced to choose between his loyalty to his teacher and his desperate desire to protect his family. Philip strikes a deal with the Japanese to serve as a translator, hoping to protect his kin from internment along with the British community.

“I was choosing a path that had the strongest chance of saving all of us, all of my family,“ Philip says. “There was a war on, and surely no one could blame me for the choice I would take.’’

Yet they do blame Philip. And he soon learns that his divided loyalties turn him into the ultimate outsider, the fate he wanted to escape. Furthermore, Philip cannot prevent the death and brutality inflicted on Penang.

According to Gannon, “A Gift of Rain’’ is a beautifully written, haunting, and even mystical tale that focuses on “the complex dance of duty, honor, and loyalty to family and country.’’

Another appeal for Gannon, a lifelong learner, is the way the author exposes readers to Eastern philosophy as well as providing an education about the Japanese occupation on Penang.

On a more personal level, Philip’s desire to take care of family and preserve the family business struck a chord for her, Gannon says, but “the true core of this story is really about the idea of fate and predetermination versus free choice,’’ a concept that we all contemplate at one point or another.

More important, while the novel is about one man’s odyssey, Gannon notes, it is part of the human condition that “all of us will inevitably confront issues of conscience, loyalty, love, betrayal, and forgiveness as we negotiate our own path in life.’’

Nancy Harris can be reached at

The Gift of Rain
By Tan Twan Eng