Tan Twan Eng’s historical fiction novel, The Gift of Rain, is one of those books that weaves the setting so perfectly into the plot, it adds yet another layer of beauty if the reader is familiar with the surroundings of the characters. Tan’s knowledge of Penang and its history as a native himself allows him to concoct a heartbreaking tale set on the Malaysian island during World War II. He brings light to a part of history often forgotten by Western media and tells a cross-cultural story that deals with the internal struggle between family, culture, and morality.
The Gift of Rain paints a stunning picture of both Penang and the deeply-nuanced history of the island. The very book itself reads like a love letter to the island, giving the reader a glimpse of the various cultures present and the heavy British influence during the colonial era. The cultural struggle of the main character is only further emphasised when the war begins and the Japanese invade British Malaya, leaving him in turmoil about his Japanese friend and mentor.
Tan manages to peel back the layers of history to reveal the horrors that Southeast Asia suffered during the war: the massacres and the mass graves, the buildings that locals still claim are haunted and the rainforest where gunshots once echoed. And he does it all while telling a story spanning over half a century and exploring questions that make your head spin over what would you do in that situation? Shoot? Die? Cry? All of the above? He shows the reader how Penang, a long-standing British colony situated on a picturesque tropical island, changes into a war-ravaged, almost unrecognisable place, even as each character descends slowly into the ambivalent gray area on the scale. The reader begins to question whether they would have done the same––if they would even have the opportunity to do the same.
The Gift of Rain is definitely worth checking out just for the way the words sing the setting to life. It’s a fantastic homage to the island itself and a great example for writers who are seeking to learn how to breathe settings to life. It transports you to an island somewhere, wreathed in tropical green, and teeming with life, as soon as you turn the first page.