Dark Secrets Unveiled
"Rainbirds" by Clarissa Goenawan
(2018), Math Paper Press
Cover photo by Choo.
This novel is set in Japan in 1994, with the main character, Ren Ishida, moving to the town where his older sister Keiko worked and lived after moving out of their family home. The reason for his move? His sister was murdered in this town.
Unlike some books you read where there’s a stilted sense of an outsider trying to write from an insider’s perspective (countless books set in Bangkok and Thailand written by people who are not Thai come to mind) what struck me immediately was the sense of authenticity the author portrayed of Japanese life and the characteristics of Japanese people. She captures so perfectly their reticence, their immaculate courtesy and formality. I got the sense that this was a culture and a society she knows intimately for her to write about it with such ease and authority. It would be no mean feat to write a story set in Japan, a notoriously closed society to foreigners, from the first person perspective of Japanese protagonist, as a non-Japanese.
For instance, in a scene in a convenience store where Ren Ishida’s cram school student barely gets away with shoplifting, this is the conversation the Ren character has with the police officer who happened to be in the store and spotted the attempted theft:
“I understand, but please overlook it this time,” I said. “I’ll talk to her and make sure she won’t do it again. She’s still young. Her future prospects will be hurt if she has a criminal record.”
His forehead creased. “May I know what your relationship is to her?”
“She’s my student.” I bowed to him. “Let me apologize on her behalf. Please, give her another chance.”
“Mr. Ishida, don’t apologise to me. I’m sorry but I can’t let her off. I have to take down her particulars in case she reoffends. I hope you don't think badly of me. I am only doing my duty.” (p81)
The formality of speech, the carefully observed manners so identifiably Japanese, is a delight throughout the book.
I also loved the pace of the story. It was a combination of page-turning intrigue and languid, almost Zen-like meditative stillness which I appreciate in Japanese fiction. And that each chapter ended on a note of subtle suspense really helped keep me reading.
I also liked the descriptive, deadpan chapter headings, like ‘The Man She Loved Had the Smell of Cigarette Smoke’ and ‘Warm Pancakes on a Rainy Day’, which were a great hook for the chapters rather than the usual chapter numbers.
I did get a bit impatient however with the many dream sequences, despite their symbolic value, and found myself wishing we could just get on with the story. I see this as testimony to how riveting the main story is.
One thing I found a bit strange was how the unraveling of the mystery at the core of the plot—how did Ren Ishida’s sister die and who killed her—seemed to get buried by other things happening in the story midway, like Ren Ishida’s dalliance with his shoplifting student. The developments between Ishida and his student seemed to take the focus of the story away from his exploration about what happened to his sister, which I found hard to believe. I found myself wanting the protagonist to be more pro-active, because I wanted to find out what had happened to his sister. From the news reports and police report about how her dead body was found, and in what state (am trying my best not to spoil things here!) I’d expected the Ren character to pursue the matter with the fire of vengeance, or at least, a yearning to uncover the truth about how someone he loved so dearly met such a gristly end.
What I also enjoyed was the skilful portrayal of the nuanced, complex relationship between Ren Ishida and his sister, a relationship revealed layer by delicate layer, until the reader understands the reasons behind some of Ren’s philandering and other behaviour and they may have judged him wrongly or too harshly. Forgive me for being vague here, but you really don’t want me to give this bit away, or you might as well put down the book (or never take it up in the first place). The siblings’ struggle with a difficult family life from a very young age is depicted with great sensitivity, leaving ripples of emotional resonance in the wake of the book’s ending.
Rainbirds is available at Books Actually (SG-exclusive paperback edition) and Kinokuniya (US hardcover edition).