Saturday, March 17, 2018

Book Review: Rainbirds

Author: Clarissa Goenawan
Publication Date: March 6, 2018
Publisher: Soho Press

Set in an imagined town outside Tokyo, Clarissa Goenawan’s dark, spellbinding literary debut follows a young man’s path to self-discovery in the wake of his sister’s murder.

Ren Ishida has nearly completed his graduate degree at Keio University when he receives news of his sister’s violent death. Keiko was stabbed one rainy night on her way home, and there are no leads. Ren heads to Akakawa to conclude his sister’s affairs, failing to understand why she chose to turn her back on the family and Tokyo for this desolate place years ago.

But then Ren is offered Keiko’s newly vacant teaching position at a prestigious local cram school and her bizarre former arrangement of free lodging at a wealthy politician’s mansion in exchange for reading to the man’s ailing wife. He accepts both, abandoning Tokyo and his crumbling relationship there in order to better understand his sister’s life and what took place the night of her death.

As Ren comes to know the eccentric local figures, from the enigmatic politician who’s boarding him to his fellow teachers and a rebellious, captivating young female student, he delves into his shared childhood with Keiko and what followed. Haunted in his dreams by a young girl who is desperately trying to tell him something, Ren realizes that Keiko Ishida kept many secrets, even from him.

Ren Ishida, our main character, is far different from protagonists that I usually read. He is standoffish, timid, and maybe a little self-conscious. Whereas, I usually read bold, brilliant, brave protagonists that are adamant about conquering obstacles. However, Ren’s perspective was just what I needed and was a nice change of pace for me. More often than not, I read from a female protagonist’s perspective, and Ren’s male voice was a nice change of pace for me. I admired how much he cared for his sister and I loved how subtly that was portrayed in his voice and actions. He was not an upbeat character, but he was highly inquisitive and that added a nice touch to her developing character.

I was most intrigued by his sister, Keiko Ishida. Keiko was murdered before the start of the novel, so unfortunately we never get to meet her and hear from her character’s perspective. However, Keiko’s character, as described through Ren, is so mysterious and vague and it only made me want to know more about her. Readers never understand a lot of Keiko’s motives until the end of the book. Ren describes her as being very closed and silent with her personal life. We find out more and more about her as the story unfolds. I never truly felt like I had her character figured out, but I think this is part of what intrigued me so much.

This was what I would call a quiet mystery. It was not a fast-paced read but a slow burn read. The writing was melodic and provided a calming effect as I read. Usually I am bored with slow burns and cannot get through them; however, this book provides a beautiful and mysterious setting and characters that make it enchanting and easy to hang on until the end. Reading this book felt like a dreary, rainy day where you feel sad and down – but I mean that in the best way possible. There were really no upbeat moments in the story but more moments where Ren realizes who he is and just how much the relationship he shared with his sister meant to him.

“Remember this, Ren. Sadness alone can't harm anyone. It's what you do when you're sad that can hurts you and those around you.” 

Keiko Ishida had fallen into an irreversible sleep. Even a tsunami couldn’t wake her from her eternal dream.

Had it been a mistake to move here? Even then, I could tell the house was full of dark secrets.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised with this novel and Clarissa Goenawan’s writing style. This was far different from what I normally read, but it was a nice change of pace for me. I greatly enjoyed reading in a Japanese setting, as it is one of my favorites to read about. I wish we would have been given more information about the Japanese culture – this is probably one of the biggest qualms I had after reading. However, I really enjoyed the slow burn mystery and will look for more of Goenawan’s writing in the future.

***A free copy of this book was provided in exchange for my honest review from the publishers at Soho Press***

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