Clarissa Goenawan’s dark, spellbinding literary debut opens with a murder and shines a spotlight onto life in fictional small-town Japan.
Ren Ishida is nearly finished with graduate school when he receives news of his sister Keiko’s sudden death. She was viciously stabbed one rainy night on her way home, and there are no leads. Ren heads to Akakawa to conclude his sister’s affairs, still failing to understand why she chose to abandon the family and Tokyo for this desolate town years ago.
But Ren soon finds himself picking up where Keiko left off, accepting both her teaching position at a local cram school and the bizarre arrangement of free lodging at a wealthy politician’s mansion in exchange for reading to the man’s catatonic wife.
As he comes to know the figures in Akakawa, from the enigmatic politician to his fellow teachers and a rebellious, alluring student named Rio, Ren delves into his shared childhood with Keiko and what followed, trying to piece together what happened the night of her death. Haunted in his dreams by a young girl who is desperately trying to tell him something, Ren struggles to find solace in the void his sister has left behind.
My Blurb (3 stars)
Judging by the book’s blurb alone, it is doubtful that I’d have picked it up. Judging by the cover, I would have definitely added it to my TBR but who knows when I’d have read it. However, a quick look at the author’s Indonesian surname clinched it. If you don’t already know, I was born & grew up in Indonesia. On the other hand, this may be a bad thing cuz you know you expect a lot from your own countrymen or women (or maybe that’s just me…).
I thought it was a little bit iffy that the book is fully Japanese (set in Japan with Japanese MC, etc). Then again, as we grew up (in Indonesia) obsessed with everything Japan (their mangas, dramas, etc), it’s really not a strange choice at all. I am a big fan of Japanese lit myself… I’ve read my share of mangas, watched J-dramas, & read a number of novels too. From all this, I’d say that Clarissa Goenawan has made a fair representation of Japanese style of living. I wonder though what Japanese people actually think…?
In essence, I do feel that this book is quite Japanese. The strange dreams (Haruki Murakami, anyone?) and relationships (brother-sister, teacher-student, etc). I loved Murakami’s books so I didn’t mind the dreams and in a way, maybe this author seeks to emulate him? And those relationships… well… I’ve seen them in mangas (especially ones for mature audiences) but I’m so glad that there were lines that were not crossed in this book.
The story is being told from the sole perspective of Ren Ishida who came to the town of Akakawa because his sister has been murdered. At the beginning, he just appears to be lost and aimless… in his grief, he drifted and some things just kind of fell on his lap. I don’t feel like he actively tried to investigate his sister’s murder so I don’t see this novel as the usual who-dun-it. He was driven more by his dreams to find something of which he wasn’t quite sure what. Will the truth destroy him or set him free?
“Sadness alone can’t harm anyone. It’s what you do when you’re sad that can hurt you and those around you.”
The reading was easy and quite enjoyable. There were some parts which I thought were kinda stilted but not many. I loved the little town with its gothic-esque feel. The MC, Ren, was easy on the eye & developed to grow easy on the heart too. If you like everything Japanese, you may enjoy this easy fare (in comparison to Japanese works that is).
About the author
Clarissa Goenawan is an Indonesian-born Singaporean writer. Her debut novel, Rainbirds, is the winner of the 2015 Bath Novel Award. Her short stories have won several awards and been published in various literary magazines and anthologies, such as The MacGuffin, Your Impossible Voice, Esquire, Monsoon Book, Writing The City, Needle in the Hay,
and many others. She loves rainy days, pretty books, and hot green tea.