gift of rain
October 8, 2008
Whenever new books by Malaysian authors come out, it doesn’t take long before they end up on my bookshelf. At the same time I think I tend to be overly critical upon reading them. Familiarity with the setting is fun, but also means that the voices have to sound right. Maybe I’m too much of a realist but sloppy or improbable plots and details tend to really grate.
As it turned out, that was one problem The Gift of Rain did not have, though it set itself a stiff challenge by placing its main character at the crossroads of three cultures: Chinese, British and Japanese, at the onset and during the Second World War. That the character’s motives appeared at times unreadable or illogical seemed (almost…) a consequence of his sense of displacement.
I suppose the wartime period is one of the most significant in Malaysia’s short shared history as a modern country, and as a result many Malaysian books seem to incorporate at least some of the events of that time. The Gift of Rain did so with a twist by personifying all sides of the war through its characters, and by setting it on Penang. Mr. Snow and I visited recently, staying at the Blue Mansion, which is also mentioned, so I could imagine it all extra well. Certain wartime scenes, which I know less about, were especially fast-paced, reading almost like a thriller, for better and for worse.
I have to say my expectations were high for this book, especially after I heard it had made it onto last year’s Booker Prize Longlist. Were they met? Two things about the book struck me repeatedly while reading. First, a profusion of adjectives in describing scenes, people and memories, almost to the point of exhaustion. Less is more for me here, especially if a short simple sentence can illustrate the same.
This is diametrically related to the second point. In contrast to the above, several passages were stunning in their simplicity of thought, and expressed so much more of the characters’ thoughts and feelings, which made the whole book for me. These flashes of brilliance lit up this nicely-plotted, if slightly pedestrian book like jolts of electricity. More than reason enough to read it.