Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan is an Asian contemporary surrealist fiction novel that is authored by an Indonesian-born Singaporean author and takes place in a fictitious city in Japan. It follows a man named Ren Ishida who goes to Akakawa after learning of his sister’s brutal murder. Upon arriving, he works to wrap up the remnants of her life and quickly realises that there was much about his beloved sibling he did not know; things that were dark and bittersweet yet comforting and endearing.
In my entire life as an aficionado of Asian literature, I have only ever come across two authors who have written stories outside of their respective cultures and identities and managed to write compelling narratives that were immensely considerate and respectful of the people of whom they wrote about without utilising harmful, toxic stereotypes in the least. Rainbirds is one of those two. Shortly after beginning the story of Ren Ishida, I had completely forgotten that this wasn’t Japanese literature, it was that bloody good. Never have I come across a novel that took place in Japan about Japanese people, written by a non-Japanese person that I had fallen so wholeheartedly in love with. For that, I applaud the author for her carefully yet evocatively crafted tale. It is one of the best books that I have read in all of 2019 and a breath-takingly exceptional debut.
What is so fantastically engrossing about Japanese literature is that it centres heavily on people as individuals as much as it does on the bonds that they formulate with others, whether that rapport is healthy and nurturing, or dark and macabre, with everything in between. The exploration of the human psyche as it pertains to the relationships people have—or don’t have—combined with the Buddhist belief of life’s impermanence is exquisitely haunting yet profoundly alluring. Rainbirds captures these elements wonderfully while sharing a story that is deeply sombre yet intellectually insightful.
The prose, like most Asian novels, consists of a simple and terse style that helps to paint a portrait of what is happening, while giving the reader’s imagination space to own the story; for it to become personalised to the reader’s instincts, responses, and perceptions that is wholly unique to them. With the setting and ambiance, there was attention on the small details, but it didn’t go into so much depth as to drown out the emotions and the tone of that scene or moment by the excessiveness of the surroundings. For example, when it rained, the descriptions of how the rain felt as it drenched Ren, or the memories it brought back for him, allowed me to transport myself into his shoes without feeling burdened by what I was reading. Rather than being told what to think and feel, I could sense it for myself and experience it via Ren’s lens.
This is an incredibly difficult feat to pull off, particularly when you take on the Japanese nature of subdued beauty and the power of provocative emotions via limited expression. Examples of some authors who are masters at writing this type of fiction include Hiromi Kawakami, Yōko Ogawa, and Banana Yoshimoto and now Clarissa Goenawan, who’s writing style is marvellously akin to these individuals.
Since the story unfolds in a succinct manner, the intensity of Ren’s grief, confusion, and eventual yearning for missed opportunities with this sister seem all the more heightened. Memories of the first time she cooked him a meal, or the promises she made to him as a child, promises she kept until the very end, created a small pit in my stomach as Ren realised how he would never be able to enjoy these elements again; moments that bonded them together so strongly. It brought back an entire boat-load of memories and grief for me as it pertains to my late brother, who was my best friend and confidante in life. My ability to empathise with Ren became vehemently personal. These portions are emphatically haunting, which helped to draw me further into the narrative. I became so invested in Ren’s pain and grief and this indescribable desire to see him survive that grief that I couldn’t put the book down.
Ren’s mourning is only one part of the story, however. There is this whole other aspect that examines the bit about relationships that I mentioned earlier; a special quality that plays parallel to Ren’s own struggles and identity crisis as an individual, particularly one without someone else to help keep them grounded. It concentrates on vital questions that typically come up with the loss of such a loved one. Who are we without the other person? Who are we when we no longer have someone to hide behind, someone to protect us from things we aren’t ready to face? What happens when we are forced to confront the fact that life is everchanging, evermoving, that nothing is permanent? What does death mean in life and vice versa?
Sorting through his sister’s belongings and personal baggage—literally and figuratively—is an expression of him sorting through his own burdens and history, and it’s also an allegory of impermanence that I wasn’t expecting at all from Rainbirds, and because of that unsuspecting disposition, I was completely mind-blown by it. The more that Ren uncovers, the more of those questions mentioned above become answered, and the easier it becomes to accept that life is full of surprises, and usually those surprises will come form the people and places that we least expect them to, which can be as much of a lovely thing as it can be damned.
Rainbirds gave me plenty of things to contemplate. It is the kind of book that you can share with a mate over a cup of coffee or tea and discuss the assorted themes and motifs. It can open a magnificent door to discourse on how we separately interpret what loss and loneliness can mean to us individually, as well as how people fear the things they cannot control, especially as it relates to change and confronting shortcomings that we aren’t ready to tackle head-on. I mentioned this in a tweet shortly after finishing my reading of Rainbirds, and I’ll say it again here: since my brother passed away, I have never wanted to share a book with him more than I do Rainbirds. I can picture the conversations we would have about it, and it brings me much nostalgic comfort. It’s remarkably affective and genuine, yet bittersweet. If you haven’t read this novel yet, then I highly recommend that you do so.
5 outta 5.
A Note on Japanese Literature:
Please note that this book has been compared to the works of Haruki Murakami, and I would have to passionately disagree. Murakami writes stories that are infused with heavy elements of magical realism. Rainbirds is not a work of magical realism at all. While it does have some soft surrealistic facets to it, it is not a magical realism novel and it also doesn’t have the same narrative tone that Murakami’s works do. I find that comparison to be quite misleading. There is nothing wrong with Murakami’s works—he’s one of my favourite authors—and I don’t say this to disrespect either author. I love this book so much that I feel incorrectly comparing it to something it isn’t similar to will do a grave injustice to the story and misrepresent it to potential readers out there.
Also, not every book written about Japanese people taking place in Japan should be automatically compared to Murakami. I see this happen so often and it frustrates me to no avail. He is definitely one of Japan’s most prominent writers, especially of the modern era, yet he’s not the be-all-end-all mould of the Japanese literary genre. There are an array of voices and writers out there within various Asian literatures, just as there are in Western parts of the world. Care should be taken to prevent stereotyping these genres in such a manner. Just something to keep in mind.