When I realized that this book was set in South East Asia I had to plunge into it. SE Asia is one of my favorite areas in the world. Whenever it is mentioned, memories from my visits and from having lived there are immediately summoned back in my mind. Memories of books, which I hold responsible for first igniting my imagination and fascination with the place, inevitably also spring back. The most memorable are Lord Jim and Somerset Maugham’s Casuarina Tree and Other Stories but perhaps the latter holds more evocative power. When I first read it prior to my first visit I was fascinated by Maugham’s description of the silhouette of the casuarina tree with its leaves forming a delicate lace against the sun. Before Google times I had to wait until I was there, and could find the actual tree, to be able to appreciate Maugham’s image. Looking around I finally found my first Casuarina tree next to the entrance to the Sarawak Museum. I took a picture and I keep it as a book marker in my copy of the book.This introduction is to make you aware of the anticipation with which I began to read this work. And now, with all this agitated expectation, what was my opinion of The Gift of Rain?Well, let’s see.The book is very ambitious in its complex setting, scope and lush writing. As a first book by the young writer Tan Twan Eng, it has been well received. It made it into the long list for the Booker Prize in 2007. It also set its author in the right path, since his second and latest novel, [b:The Garden of Evening Mists|12031532|The Garden of Evening Mists |Tan Twan Eng|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1333033941s/12031532.jpg|16997854], was short listed for this same prize this year.The novel presents the tragic demise of a British family, which had established itself in the Penang island in the colony of Malaysia, and where it created an economic emporium. In a flash back manner, the youngest son and main character. Philip Arminius Khoo–Hutton tells us, at some point in the 1990’s, the fate of his family during WWII and the Japanese occupation of the Malaysian peninsula.Philip Hutton is the youngest of the four Hutton children, but he is the only son of a second marriage when his widowed father Noel Hutton married a Chinese Lady. As the fruit of a mixed marriage, Philip is conscious of being the product of two cultures. But as he befriends a Japanese man who becomes his very much admired teacher of Aikido or sensei, he comes to represent not two but three cultures. He stands at the Malaysian crux with its three occupants: the Chinese settlers, the British settlers, and the Japanese invaders. Curiously, Malays do not seem to figure much in the book. Philip Hutton’s tripartite nature and inner conflicts become the forces that move the plot. The story will unfold as Philip moves from one culture or community to another, each time being both welcome and rejected, and either chooses or is led to play different roles. So, choice or fate?. In this impassionate novel Mr. Tan strives to show us the collusion of two different understandings of fate, the Asian concept of circularity and the lineal understanding held by Western thought. What a goal for a first book!Apart from the exotic setting, the plot and the deeper musings, this book is also very pleasant to read because of its language. Mr. Tan has a very delicate and sweetly evocative pen and some of his descriptions are beautiful and lyrical and call for a slow reading. But The Gift of Rain suffers a bit from its being a first book. Although written by an Asian author, it does taste of Western audiences. Some parts read somewhat like a Baedecker or a Vademecum of Asia. So, we get a somewhat irritating explanation of what the Nyonya community is, or a somewhat irrelevant brief digest of the occupation of the Forbidden City (with an acknowledged fictional episode included).As he has set himself to write about a period in which he was not yet born, Mr. Tan’s youth is also felt in the way he has resorted to research. One feels it is not experience talking. So, for example, he only mentions the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor but keeps silent on the almost simultaneous attack of the Clark Base in the Philippines, where the US kept its Air Force Post. The latter would have been more shocking to someone living in the area at the time, but the Pearl Harbor bombing is more prominent in our current consciousness. May be that is the trend that current fiction is following. We readers may be becoming lazy and we expect to be led by the hand and have everything explained to us.And last but not least, I found that not just before but also while reading this book, one could breathe the air of Western writers. Conrad is a ghost not just for me but also probably for Mr. Tan. And given what I have said about Maugham’s Casuarina, one could imagine how I jolted when I saw that this tree also figures prominently in The Gift of Rain. By planting a specimen in the Hutton gardens and making the tree the symbol of the Hutton family, Tan Twan Eng is also paying a direct homage to Somerset Maugham.I could not object to this, but Maugham could evoke the exotic with less explicit exegesis.This leaves me with clarifying my rating. I think that because of its neophyte tint this is a three star book, but since the components are my pet subjects and as Mr Tan is clearly a promising author, the fourth star is awarded And to extend a bit of the Baedecker color to my review as well, here is the beautiful house of Cheong Fatt Tze, La Maison Bleu (sic) that is often mentioned as a way of guiding us to the place and times.