It’s a complex task for an author to write a story where an ageing narrator recalls the events of his or her youth. In a sense the writer must create two protagonists, the old man and the youth. They are the same person, yet not the same person, for a lifetime separates them. In one sense The Gift of Rain, is a coming of age novel, albeit set in the tumultuous time of the Japanese invasion of Malaya during WWII where Philip Hutton, a young man of British/Chinese heritage, must choose sides so many times and in so many different ways that his guilt and confusion is palpable. His loyalties, like the loyalties of most of the characters in the novel, are divided, as is his identity. He doesn’t know who he is yet, so he is vulnerable to the older, wiser sensei Endo-san who teaches him about aikido, love and life.
But this story about a confused young man is narrated by an older Philip Hutton, with the hindsight and justifications that age brings to the heedless actions of youth. The older man has suffered a lifetime of grief, and only towards the end of his life can he reconcile his guilt, his grief and his regret and find some kind of peace.
As I read I was very frustrated by both the old man and his younger self. It seemed so obvious that he was being taken advantage of, that his loyalty to Endo-san was foolish. It was like watching a fly caught in a spider’s web, struggling to escape, and knowing that there was no way it was getting free. I suppose that was the author’s point, that certain events are inevitable and we can only go through the motions, following our hearts. I can’t say that I agree. And I can’t say that I enjoyed all of this book. It was a bit longwinded for me at times, and the young Philip was annoying. But it was a rich and complex work, exploring important ideas in a lushly evoked setting. Highly recommended.