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Clarissa Goenawan’s ‘Rainbirds’: A murder, a cram school, a mystery

by Suzanne Kamata

Contributing Writer

Indonesian-born Clarissa Goenawan’s debut novel, “Rainbirds,” is set in Japan, was written in Singapore, and was first published in the U.S. (with foreign language rights sold in 10 countries and counting) making it something of a transnational literary tour de force.

Rainbirds, by Clarissa Goenawan.
336 pages
SOHO PRESS, Fiction.

It starts with 20-something Ren Ishida traveling to the fictional town of Akakawa to pick up the cremains of his murdered sister, Keiko, and talk to the police. While there, he falls into a job teaching at the cram school where his sister had been employed and decides to hang out for a while to try to figure out what happened to Keiko.

Between the disaffected young male narrator, references to pasta and jazz, and occasional weirdness — Ren promises a girl he meets in a dream to find her in real life; another girl compulsively shoplifts bubble gum — there is a consistent suggestion that the author is paying homage to Haruki Murakami, and fans of his slightly off-kilter brand of fiction will find much to enjoy here.

Although the occasional small detail, such as omuraisu (omelette rice) for breakfast or the suggestion of throwing cremains into the sea, gave this reviewer pause for thought, cultural authenticity is beside the point. As in Murakami’s fiction, the setting is not really Japan, per se, but an imaginary parallel where anything can happen.

“Rainbirds” is a mystery, but not a nail-biter. Instead, secrets are revealed, surprises appear and tangled relationships are unraveled as the novel meanders toward its conclusion. Readers will be carried along by its creepy charm.