By Seow Bei Yi
Rainbirds is a study of grief, told through the eyes of graduate student Ren Ishida.
His life goes into a tailspin when he learns of his older sister Keiko’s brutal murder. To settle her affairs, he leaves Tokyo without telling his girlfriend and digs into the life that Keiko led in the fictional Japanese town of Akakawa.
There, he learns that Keiko, a cram school teacher, had been stabbed to death one rainy night on her way home. There were no witnesses.
He decides to remain in Akakawa for half a year, easing into the teaching job that his sister’s murder left vacant. And he realises just how little he knows about the woman who cared for him as they grew up together.
Rainbirds is less of a fast-paced thriller or whodunit, more a tale of grief and realisation. Written in clear, simple prose, it is an evocative debut by Clarissa Goenawan.
Ren revisits moments of his past in his stages of grief. In moves symbolic of his emotional state, he shifts from Tokyo to a hotel in Akakawa, then into his sister’s old room, before finding a rundown place to call his own.
Goenawan makes subtle references to the lens through which society views women, in the way she introduces readers to characters such as the schoolgirl Ren nicknames Seven Stars, after the cigarette brand he sees her smoking.
The first thing he notices about her is her beauty, but as quickly as he learns that she is a student in the school where he is teaching, he is filled in on gossip that she was seen leaving a high-end jewellery store with a well-dressed man old enough to be her father – an incident that readers later learn more about.
Fans of Japanese author Haruki Murakami, whose novels often invoke themes of loneliness, obsession and loss, may draw some parallels between his work and Goenawan’s.
Apart from their male protagonists and depictions of women, their works contain elements of magical realism as well and keep readers thinking.
Ren, for instance, has recurring dreams of a child in pigtails. He does not know who she is and she tells him that he has to figure this out on his own. Once he does, she says: “Everything will become clear.”
Far from being a heavy read, Rainbirds proves to be a page-turner – albeit a rather melancholy one – with Goenawan providing enough going on to keep readers hooked to the end.
Those looking for the satisfaction of finishing a gritty crime mystery will find themselves somewhere different, however. If there is one thing the novel holds back on, it is that some of the darker secrets of its characters remain veiled. – The Straits Times/Asia News Network
Author: Clarissa Goenawan
Publisher: Math Paper Press, fiction