RAINBIRDS by Clarissa Goenawan


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When a Japanese graduate student’s sister is violently murdered in a small town in rural Japan, he abandons his life and steps into her shoes to come to terms with her death.

Ren Ishida has always admired his sister, Keiko, from afar. He grew up obsessing over her love life despite never having much of his own. He pursued the same major as her at university—a study of British and American literature—with ambitions of becoming a teacher, just like her. But when Keiko is stabbed to death on the street in the small town she calls home, Ren is so guilt-ridden and grief-stricken that he travels to her town under the pretense of obtaining her ashes and finalizing her affairs but ends up moving into her home and replacing her as an English teacher at the local high school. Over the course of Ren’s spiritual reconnection with his sister, he unwittingly uncovers the mystery behind her murder and unearths shocking family secrets in the process. Goenawan’s debut proves to be a slow, soulful whodunit full of deadpan humor and whimsical narrative unpredictability in an attempt at a Murakami-esque aesthetic. Ren’s barren, unreliable narration can be as hilarious as it is sad, and an interesting cast of characters—a girl in his class nicknamed Seven Stars, with whom he forms a taboo romantic entanglement that torments him; his friend and fellow teacher, Honda—gives the novel a voice and world of its own. Goenawan unfortunately struggles with transitions between present action and flashback, and the novel falls victim to plot holes and linguistic clichés (an underage Seven Stars to Ren, while wearing her schoolgirl uniform: “Didn’t you say age was only a number?”).

A witty, well-constructed debut that manages to overcome moments of cliché.

Pub Date: March 6th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-61695-855-8
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Soho
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2018


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