#AsianLitBingo : Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan

Keiko Ishida has always been so thoughtful and well liked. I didn’t think anyone could hate her enough to kill her in such a gruesome way. Or was I wrong about her? If I had made an effort to understand my sister, could I have changed her fate?

It was too late for these questions to matter. Keiko Ishida had fallen into an irreversible sleep. Even a tsunami couldn’t wake her from her eternal dream.

A subtle and quiet book set in Japan, Rainbirds opens with Ren Ishida in a car, clutching an urn, inside of which were the ashes of his 33-year-old sister, who was murdered, stabbed in the small town of Akakawa.

Keiko Ishida worked as a cram school teacher in Akakawa and Ren, who also studied the same subjects as her, takes over her teaching position temporarily and even resides in the same small room. He slowly begins to find out more about the life of his sister, whom he hadn’t seen in seven years and who was several years older than him. There was always a hint of the melancholic about her.

My sister didn’t seem to hear me. Looking out the window, she said, “Remember this, Ren. Sadness alone can’t harm anyone. It’s what you do when you’re sad that can hurt you and those around you.”

Rainbirds may open with a murder but it isn’t exactly a whodunnit. The author doesn’t rush into details or push suspects into view or leave red herrings. Instead it’s a gentle and strange wander into life in this small town, as he meets Keiko’s colleagues, landlord, and strikes up friendships. Among all this are strange dreams that Ren has, dreams he cannot forget and which haunt him.

Rainbirds is an unusual read. I came into it knowing that the author lives in Singapore, is originally from Indonesia, and has set this book in Japan. But I didn’t know what to expect from this debut novel. So I was intrigued to find the prose had a Japanese flair, the pace gentle but with a good rhythm, and the secrets aplenty and waiting to be unraveled.

I read this for Asian Lit Bingo – Contemporary with Asian MC.


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