Sunday, October 14, 2007

bullets with butterfly wings

Another book that doesn’t exactly shine through its synopsis and cover art - The Gift of Rain was always destined to be in the balance for me. On the downside there was war and martial arts, on the up the Eastern setting. However Tan Twan Eng cast a subtle spell that made me love all the things I usually despise. Early on, when Phillip Hutton is introducing us to Penang we learn of his love of the sea - and from that moment on I knew I was in too deep! Even the descriptions of the aikijutsu lessons welcomed me - physical activity described in terms of thought and feeling and spiritual connection.

In a similar way to The Reluctant Fundamentalist the story unfolds as Hutton relates his life story to a female visitor to his home. We are taken back to his teenage years, his struggles as a mixed race child, his friendship with his Japanese teacher, and increasingly the turmoil as his homeland is invaded by the Japanese. The tale is told with an unhurried pace, everything will be revealed in due course, but we must be patient.

‘His words had bones in them, like the flesh of fish one bites into innocently.’

Tan Twan Eng creates a strong sense of place - of people within their environment, complete with sounds and smells, of water, trees, birds and insects. But for a fair part of the novel these didn’t feel alive to me. They felt stifled and reserved - somewhat like Phillip’s fathers cases full of mounted butterflies. You can see the beauty but you can’t touch - but in time the doors are opened and the colours flood out and surround you. Eventually the characters and their surroundings warm to you, and welcome you, and then the novel truly springs to life.

‘All around, candles had been placed on my father’s collection of statues and they appeared to move like living things as the flames fought the breeze.’

And then war comes. Tearing into the idyllic home you have come to love, leaving you wincing at the brutalities. In a similar way to The Welsh Girl boundaries between friend and enemy are constantly shifting. Along with the characters our loyalties are questioned and challenged - do we know for sure whose side we would stand on?

A novel with a strong plot and distinctive characters, I’m surprised and disappointed that The Gift of Rain didn’t make the Booker shortlist. I loved it - and won’t forget certain striking passages where scenes came to life almost as if a photograph in your hand suddenly shifted from black and white to colour -

‘the Temple of Azure Cloud, where hundreds of pit vipers took up residence, coiled around incense holders and the eaves and crossbeams of the roof, inhaling the smoke of incense lit by worshippers.’

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