Aaron was back in the moderator’s seat for this discussion. Huge thanks to Isaac once again for the venue. A warm welcome goes out to new attendee Andrew for joining us. Javin, Luke, and Timmy rounded up the discussion group. Raj was on a roll tonight! (Apparently he had sex the night before our discussion.)
We decided to switch things up for this discussion and started off asking what do each of us like about the book. Raj found it relatable as the story was set in Penang, which was similar to Singapore. He felt that the book “hits a personal chord”. Isaac felt the book was an easy read – which Javin agreed – and was at its strongest when it was retelling history. Aaron found the sex scenes super hot, and the portrayal of student-teacher relationships.
As to what we don’t like about the book, everyone agreed that the book was too descriptive: Raj thought some parts were too draggy, while Javin commented that reading it was a chore at times as it got too “lor sor”. Aaron said that perhaps Tan had written this book for the Western audience, hence the overwrought proses. He thought that the author didn’t trust the readers, thus having to elucidate every single description. Isaac felt that the book was only ordinary in terms of literary value.
The first thing we (obviously) discussed was the sex scene(s). There were five in total, and Raj was gracious enough to read them all out loud (he had them bookmarked). We deduced that:
- The first sex scene was akin to the loss of one’s virginity.
- The second one alluded to penetrative/anal sex.
- The third sex act depicted a handjob.
- The fourth sex scene was all about role reversals.
- The fifth sex scene was equivalent to angry sex.
We questioned the overabundance of homoeroticism featured in the book. Raj noted that the allusions could be equated to sexual tension/attraction.
There was also the distinct lack of women being descriptively written in Tan’s book. Apart from Auntie Mei and Isabel Hutton, the only two strong female characters, the other ladies in the book were generic and dismissively written. This was a big disparity compared to the males: most, if not all of the men, were handsome, rich, had rippling muscles, and knew some form of martial arts (kung fu) or self-defence (protagonist’s father was a boxing champion). Both Aaron and Raj highlighted how Tan even went so far as to describe what the male characters were wearing, down to the designs on the cuffs of their shirts.
The negative portrayal of the eunuch (Aaron) was briefly touched on. Raj joked that because “he doesn’t have a sword, so he cannot fight”. This book showcased that there was the fear of people who were different.
Another point that was brought up was the lack of other races. Despite the book being set in Malaysia, there were predominantly more Japanese, Caucasians, and the mixed heritage. Indians were only featured as “gurkhas, the lighthouse guard, Raju’s Mee Rebus, and the bomb traitor,” according to Raj. The Malays were unfortunately almost non-existent, with the only representation being the “lesser” Sultans.
The class system was also another topic that we discussed – the rich versus the slaves. Aaron observed that the rich people controlled the poor people. Uncle Lim, however, was cited as an exception in that despite working as the Hutton’s chauffeur, he was still rich. Aaron deduced this to the fact that he was paid by either the father or the grandfather, and thus represented the lower class. However, the revelation of him being a traitor was viewed as a negative representation.
With regards to love in reference to the context of the book, Aaron noted that “to be in love, (someone) must be twice in age.” This has nothing to do with paedophilia, but perhaps more closer to the May-December romance. Raj believed that Philip and Hayato Endo shared an unconditional love bond.
We also talked about pre-war Malayan and its pro-British stance. Raj countered that “during the British ruling back then, (the country) was (experiencing) glorious times.”
Aaron thought the book was poorly structured, as there were stories within stories. Timmy joked that it was Tan’s version of Inception, albeit in book form. Isaac said it was like a Chinese puzzle.
We didn’t get to discuss why death was so excessive throughout the book, despite Raj reiterating that almost everyone died in the end.
“Why was the book named The Gift of Rain?” Aaron asked. “There were a lot of rain scenes,” Raj quipped. Ultimately, the book was about survival (Raj). Isaac, however, had a more beautiful thing to say about the title: “Life is one of hardship, and rain is a respite from the hardness of life.”
In terms of characters, Raj liked Auntie Mei as he felt that she was “real and stuck to her principles.” Philip, however, earned Aaron’s disdain as he didn’t understand why he became a traitor, and felt that Philip was just stupid. A special mention goes out to Adele, Philip’s secretary, who didn’t die. We joked that she ended up fat (Javin) and became the best-selling artist that she is today (Timmy).
By the end of the discussion, the book did nothing to change everyone’s opinions. Raj stood by with his love/hate relationship towards the book, while Isaac said that what he didn’t like about the book far outweighed what he did like about it. He found the book an exotic, historical piece of fiction. Aaron glorified the book as another MediaCorp Channel 8 production like The Price of Peace. We could not comprehend why the book was even longlisted for the Man Booker Prize when it was not that particularly good.
Throughout the discussion, we also asked whether Tan Twan Eng was gay, and finally deduced that he is, based on his vivid depictions of the male characters in the book, the starring roles conferred to the Japanese, as well as the fact that he is now living in Africa, probably to get all the black men there.