Friday, May 29, 2009

Man Without a Face redux


Or Batman and Robin, or maybe it's simply Twilight for little gay guys, but Tan Twan Eng's The Gift of Rain is quite the adolescent epic of doomed, yet eternal, love. Philip, the half-Chinese son of a wealthy colonialist, is sixteen when he meets Endo-san, an older Japanese man who has rented the small island owned by Philip's family, offshore their palatial home on the Malayan island of Penang. It's 1939, so you know this isn't going anywhere good, but the boy and man become inseparable, Philip introducing Endo-san to the nooks and crannies of Penang; Endo-san teaching Philip the martial arts and Zen philosophy of his homeland. On the page, there's nothing sexual between the two, and readers can decide for themselves just whether all the kisses and embraces and intense soul-searching gazes exchanged by the two constitute a romantic liaison or simply a very close friendship, one that, Endo claims, the two have had in previous lives and will go on to have in the future. The writing is just naive enough to make me wonder whether the author fully knew what he was implying but regardless, The Gift of Rain is a Boy Book writ large--tons of action, explosions, hand-to-hand combat, swordplay (heh), Eastern philosophy, spies, betrayals, secret caves, oaths, seppuku, and hardly a girl to be seen (except for Philip's plucky older sister and an old Japanese lady--also a martial artist--who encourages the now-elderly Philip to relate the story of his youth). I do hope boys can get past the flashback structure and the Oprah-looking cover for the grandly idealistic war story and safely sublimated romance.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I notice that the Library of Congress (where I work) cataloged both the British edition (published in 2007) and the U.S. edition (published in 2008) as adult novels. Do you know if the title has ended up in any YA collections?

Lyle Blake Smythers

Roger Sutton said...

It was definitely published for adults, Lyle, but has a probably unintended boyishness to it I think kids would respond to. As a grownup reader, I was occasionally embarrassed by the plaintive earnestness of the writing but I kept thinking that as a fifteen-year-old I would have LOVED this book.

Anonymous said...

The disconnect between the book/audience you describe and the cover image could hardly be greater. The book looks it's about... tea?

Roger Sutton said...

Worse: it looks like it's about the memory of tea.

Anonymous said...

"Darjeeling Dawns," the looked for sequel to "Ceylon Evenings," coming this fall.

Anonymous said...

And the question I hate to ask but must, how hard do you think it is? (My boys who would like it are not the strongest readers necessarily.)

Roger Sutton said...

You might need to booktalk someone through the opening section, set in the present day and narrated by an old man about his present circumstances. Tell 'em it's worth it. It's not a book for "reluctant readers," but eighth-graders on up who like a challenge could get into it.

gail said...

An old lady who's a martial artist--I'm so there!