The Gift of Rain by Tan Twang Eng
Based on the fictional life of a Euro-Asian man, Philip Hutton, who is born to a wealthy British trader and a Chinese mother in Penang in the 1920s. The story begins with the arrival of an elderly Japanese woman arriving at Istana, Philip’s house, and introduces herself as an old friend of Hayato Endo (otherwise known as Endo-san), a Japanese man who Philip became close to during the war. Philip begins to recount his meeting with Endo-san back in 1939 when Philip, then in his teens, was increasingly unsure of his roots, especially since his mother died when he was five. He’d grown up with his three older British siblings, who were products of a former marriage, in a house where the Chinese and Malayans were servants. When his family decide to embark on another visit to Britain, Philip asks to stay in Penang as he’d felt, on previous visits, that although his British siblings had embraced, and been welcomed into, the British society he, because of his Chinese features, had been shunned. It is during this time, when he is on his own in Penang, that he meets Endo-san who has rented a little island from Philip’s father which is a short distance from Istana. Endo-san begins to train Philip in Japanese martial arts and in Japanese philosophy causing a spiritual awakening in Philip that creates a bond between the two of them. The story, steeped in Buddhist philosophy of reincarnation and the harsh Japanese culture of duty, shows the torment that Philip endures when the Japanese invade the island a few years later causing him to question his own loyalties as he picks his way through a world of collaboration and resistance.
This is a bittersweet thriller that incorporates extreme violence with the supernatural and the spiritual. It’s a masterpiece of writing; a truly absorbing read with an insight into a character who is, initially, at odds with the world and feels estranged from his family, due to his mixed blood, and then is finally emotionally torn apart by divided loyalties. The novel is steeped with historical facts that help to bring alive the fictional side of the story and is an eye-opener to an Asian colonial life. Having said that, Eng can be criticised for the lack of individualistic traits of his characters, especially as their dialogue can be rather poetical, however the story is told from Philip’s point of view and is a reflective narrative so it could be said that perhaps that’s the way he chooses to remember it. Being the winner of the Man Booker prize 2007, this book will, deservedly, be on the shelves for many more years to come.
Alison OReilly 14/4/2012
Night Road by Kristen Hannah
Alexa (Lexi) Baille, fatherless from birth then orphaned in her early teens when her drug-addict mother overdoses, arrives in a close-knit community of Pine Island, near Seattle, to live in a trailer park with her great aunt Eva. On Lexi’s first day at high school she befriends the socially awkward and self-deprecating, Mia Farraday, who is a twin to Zack, a straight A student and the future ‘Home-Coming King’. Jude, the twin’s mother, is the perfect Stepford-wife who spends her time creating a designer-life for her children and, being married to a successful doctor, money doesn’t appear to be a problem. When Mia invites Lexi back to her home after their first day at school, Jude makes a conscious decision that Lexi’s selflessness could give the forever-friendless Mia more confidence so, despite the two families being from the opposite side of the track, Jude actively encourages Lexi into the family. But one dark night, many years later, Jude regrets her decision.
Kristen Hannah tackles a very complex scenario but sadly relies on sensationalism rather than character development that turns what could have been a remarkable novel into something that is more appropriate for a teenage magazine. The issues that arise within the novel: drunken driving; death and teenage pregnancy, are very current in today’s world and the essence of the book, forgiveness, is most commendable but the realism of her characters is overshadowed by this very plot-led novel.
It is definitely a book of two halves. The first half lacks character realism and has a bit of a pedestrian plot. The manner in which the whole Farraday family, with the exception of Jude’s husband who is boringly ‘nice’, tend to feed off Lexi’s altruism becomes rather irritating. However in the later part of the book, Hannah comes into her stride, creating a much feistier Lexi who leads the reader into some very emotional scenes. This is a great book for adolescent readers, in fact, it’s almost ‘a must’, but, for the more mature reader, it lacks depth.
Alison OReilly 14/4/2012
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
A quietly horrifying book that depicts life in two countries, India and Scotland, and the highlights the callousness of the Edwardian era through to modern times. The novel begins with Iris who is a modern woman, living life as she wants, running her own business and having an affair with a married man. With her father dead, her mother in Australia and her grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s, Iris’s pseudo step-brother, Alex, is the only real family that she has until she gets a phone call to tell her of great aunt Euphemia Esme Lennox. Esme, as she is known within her family, had been placed into the mental institution over 60 years ago. Her family, refusing to then acknowledge her existence, turned their backs on her and she was never mentioned again. The institution is about to be closed down and Iris, unknowingly until then, was named as being next of kin. Totally baffled Iris tries to ask her grandmother, Esme’s older sister Kitty, to explain but Kitty’s dementia makes explanations very difficult.
Esme Lennox was a sensitive young girl who was born during the time of the Raj in India. Her mother intent on insuring a good marriage for her daughters, takes her older sister, Kitty, away for a weekend, intent on introducing her to the ‘right people’. Esme is then left on her own with just her young baby brother and their ayah for company. On their return they find Esme locked in the library, clinging to the body of her dead brother, whilst the ayah lies dead in her bed; both are victims of cholera. Her father has to forcibly pull the baby away from her whilst her mother looks away. Esme is both bewildered and horrified by the death and is shunned by her mother who is absorbed by her own grief. The family decide to return to Scotland where Esme is told never to mention the baby again.
Esme can’t settle into a new life in Scotland, she’d always been a bit wayward and a difficult child to manage but then she becomes completely unsociable, defying any of the graces that her mother is trying to instil in her; this can only lead to tragedy and it does.
The book is sparsely written, using the minimum words for a maximum affect making it a very quick book to read but this doesn’t detract from its emotional, and horrifying, appeal. In fact the few words used to convey the character’s emotions, either in dialogue or action, make for a stronger image and although it is a short book, it is still an absorbing read. It is far from being ‘high-brow’ literature but O’Farrell brilliantly portrays a world, which should never be forgotten, where women have little or no say in their lives and were at the mercy of a cold and callous regime.
Alison OReilly 14/4/2012