Reviewed by Jed Cruz
By Clarissa Goenawan
336 pp. Soho Press.
When protagonist Ren Ishida walks into a police station in the opening pages of Rainbirds to inquire about the circumstances surrounding the murder of his older sister, it very much seems like a promise from the novel to deliver a gripping procedural and an intense crime drama. Ren has just rolled into the sleepy mountain town of Akakawa with the sole purpose of settling his sister Keiko’s affairs. Perhaps he wants to discover what led to her death. Her ashes are in an urn, which Ren leaves in his hotel room as he steps out to investigate. His internal monologue recalls happier times and the happy memories that he shared with his sister.
As Ren digs deeper and deeper into the life that Keiko has made for herself in Akakawa, the novel spirals further and further away from that promise. Ren settles in and gradually adapts to town life, and he begins to form relationships with the locals. His role in the story becomes less and less the vengeful brother, and more into a young adult who, like everybody else out there in their 20s, has a lot more on his mind beyond playing amateur detective.
The plot unfolds with a serenity fitting the town itself. Interactions are made uniquely Japanese by their politeness and the almost unconscious desire to avoid any awkwardness or embarrassment. Virtually every character has a name, no matter how minor they are in relation to the plot. It’s an ever-present reminder that Rainbirds is really about people and how their lives are linked.
One way to look at Rainbirds is as a collection of many short human anecdotes. Almost every character that Ren runs into has a story to tell, and they are interesting stories — little glimpses into lives being lived, and little nuggets of wisdom that everyone learns from the smallest of experiences. Katou, a local politician who is equal parts benevolent and sinister, lives in a beautiful house with a wife who never speaks and who never leaves her room. Honda, who used to work with Keiko, is reminded deeply of an ex-girlfriend whenever he drives alone. And then there’s seventeen-year-old Rio Nakajima: a pretty schoolgirl with a rebellious streak, an insightful mind, and a potentially unhealthy interest in Ren.
There’s another way to look at Rainbirds: it’s an intricate puzzle box of intertwining characters, events, and relationships. Reading Rainbirds is like taking that puzzle box apart, studying how the pieces were locked together, and putting it back into one piece in a satisfying manner. Everything eventually links into everything else in almost magical ways. Indeed, there’s a certain kind of surrealism that surrounds the novel’s depiction of Small Town Japan. Threads that have seemingly dropped are picked up in the most unusual ways. What initially seem like throwaway references gain new meaning as Ren uncovers more truths about the people in his sister’s life. It all wraps up in a memorable finale that manages to keep all the wheels spinning up to the very last word.
Rainbirds is a story about the tragedies and joys of relationships wrapped in the candy shell of a murder mystery. It’s an unexpected treat. Read it.
Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan is available at Fully Booked stores.
Jed is one of the co-founders of Popsicle Games, a game development studio based in the Philippines. He has worked as an animator, web designer, and college instructor, but he continues to dream of writing for a living. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @jrevita.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]