I’ve been in Penang for the last four days. Basking on sunswept beaches, climbing through humid jungles and dodging bullets and bombs in wartorn streets. Ok, I haven’t really, but The Gift of Rain is so immersive, it draws you in until you can feel the sun on your neck, hear leaves rustling and smell the fragrance of the frangipani trees.
Another reviewer has criticised the book for relying too much on events and the environment, rather than the characters. I’d disagree. In fact, I’d say the island itself is as much a character as the men and women living on it in this story. The sense of place is so strong and distinct that it’s easy to accept some of the more mystical goings on because by that point you’re so absorbed in this foreign land where the mundane is magnified until it has magical qualities.
The book is primarily plot rather than character driven, but this absolutely makes sense in the context of the story. It’s so big, so wide, that the author has sensibly given it enough room through events to show how actions have consequences on through time and generations. That’s not to say that the characters are automatons walking blindly along a pre-defined path. Far from it, and they spend a lot of time examining the nature of free will vs destiny.
The characters are well drawn and authentic and one thing that particularly impressed me was the writer’s ability to tell the story as an old man and a teenage boy without either voice sounding affected or fake. The dialogue was tight but rich and the thoughts behind their actions were clear and made sense. The other unusual thing I noticed was that none of the minor characters were there as ‘filler’ – everyone had a distinct personality and a role to play.
The structure of the book and the pacing is good, there are enough hints of what’s to come to keep you reading on, but there are still enough twists and turns to shock you. My only criticism really, was that the second half of the book felt a bit rushed, given the amount of events and time it covered after the slow burn first half – but I understand that most people balk at reading books longer than 400 or so pages, so I can see why this half was shorter. Also, it is quite traumatic in places so I suppose it makes sense to draw a veil over some of the everyday events rather than keep repeating the horrors.
This book has definitely made it onto my keepers shelf, and I’ll be looking out for more by Tan Twan Eng – it’s a well deserved 5 stars from me.