Two Reviews: The Gift of Rain and Man of War

The Gift of Rain

This book I picked up off the library’s new books shelf because I like rain.  Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel is written as the account (as far as I can tell, entirely fictional, even to many of the places) of a young man growing up in British colonial Indonesia, first under the threat of war with Japan and then in the occupation.  The story is told from his own perspective as an old man.

Eng’s style is clean and clear, with an eye for detail and good grasp of character.  However in places the plausibility of the action described stretches thin, even while reading.  On reflection much of the story seems very improbable; though I believe that is supposed to be part of the point.  Many of the comparisons which come to mind echo the theater: how much, both of reality and of the story told, is an act?  The arc of the tale on the whole would do a Greek tragedy proud, and the body count would not look out of place on a Shakespearean stage.

Grade: B+

Man of War: Sir Robert Holmes and the Restoration Navy

For once, I read a book that I don’t feel silly giving a grade to.  Richard Ollard’s biography of Sir Robert Holmes, despite its comfortable style, bears many of the hallmarks of the most tome-like academic work.  It is almost strictly a biography and says little about the basic facts and figures of Charles II’s navy – the subject in pursuit of which I mainly bought the book.  Ollard clearly has a good deal of respect – even enthusiasm – for Holmes; he also holds him up as an archetype of the officers who commanded the Royal Navy in its transition from Drake’s freebooters to Nelson’s (more or less) professional corps.  He repeatedly compares Holmes as an officer to Pepys as an administrator, and is inclined to think Holmes doesn’t get enough credit from other historians.

The writing is very uneven, veering from the aura of strictest academic neutrality to the gusto of a popular account, complete with contractions, and back again, with no predictability.  On the other hand, all his claims are thoroughly sourced, and Ollard seems far more comfortable admitting – even pointing out – gaps in his narrative, sources, or theories than many historians I’ve read.  Overall the impression one gets is that he accidentally sent a late draft to the publishers, instead of the finished work.  Although I thoroughly enjoyed it, in light of the inconsistent tone, lack of a few pertinent details, and tendency to excuse any and all of his protagonist’s (apparently relatively few, at least by the standards of his day) failings I give the work a C+.