T he Promise of Rain, Donna Milner's second novel, is similar to her first, After River, in its exploration of war and family secrets, but the conflict has shifted from Vietnam to the Second World War, and to the plight of prisoners of war in Hong Kong.
Milner alternates between the horrors experienced by young Canadian Howard Coulter during his years in the PoW camp and the problems developing years later, in 1962, when Howard's wife Lucy dies. His children are crushed and bewildered by the loss of their mother in mysterious circumstances. The point of view is excellent: In the war years, the narrator is third-person; later on, Ethie, Howard's 11-year-old daughter, tells the story.
Ethie is a splendid narrator. She is a thoughtful girl who loves her parents and her brothers, Frankie, 20, and Kipper, 14. She is fiercely protective of Kipper, who has Down's syndrome. And she is well aware that her father is damaged: "I knew he was different. By the time I was six years old I knew my father was not like other fathers. Other fathers didn't sit and stare at the wall a few inches above the top of their television set. They didn't disappear regularly into a silent world, or get lost on long treks through the Vancouver rain."
Given what Howard has been through, it's a miracle he can function at all, and he does his best to support his family, aided by copious amounts of alcohol. Howard was a 20-year-old Manitoba farm boy when he signed up for the war, along with his best friend Gordy. Milner describes with devastating detail the violence, both psychological and physical, to which the young men are subjected. The life in the camp is appalling and a testament to small acts of human kindness amid unthinkable brutality.
Milner never over-dramatizes
When Howard leaves for the war, he is already married to Lucy, a lively and gutsy young woman he has known since they were children. Gordy has been dating many young women, but almost immediately after the troop ship lands in Hong Kong, he falls in love with a young Chinese women named Shun-ling, whose family are starving refugees. The Canadian troops have money, and Gordy and Howard try to help as the refugees are reduced to scavenging for seaweed. But once the Japanese take over, it's the Canadians who need food.
Milner deftly manages to keep suspense growing in both strands of the narrative. While we know that Howard survives the war, we don't know how, and we don't know who else does, until near the novel's end.
In Ethie's narrative, we see the sadness that Lucy's death causes, and how Howard disappears into a bottle. Frankie tries to keep the family together, but Lucy's sister, the childless Mildred, is doing her best to claim Ethie and put Kipper in a home. Mildred is a bit of a stereotype: the well-meaning, well-to-do relative who has no concept of how much Howard's children love him and each other. But she is a believable stereotype, especially in her rejection of Kipper. She fails to see what a loving child Kipper is, that he gives at least as much as he gets. Her attitude was a common one for 1962, when any kind of difference tended to be hidden and/or thought shameful.
The Promise of Rain uses straightforward, even gentle, language that serves to heighten the awfulness of the tragedies unfolding in the two time frames. Milner never over-dramatizes. And while she provides a full picture of the cruelty human beings can inflict on one another, she does so with a powerful restraint. At the heart of the novel is the idea that ordinary people can do both terrible and wonderful things. They can hate, and they can love. And hope is essential. The combination of compassion and suspense makes this novel impossible to put down.
Candace Fertile teaches English at Camosun College in Victoria, B.C.