Indonesian-born Singaporean writer Clarissa Goenawan’s first novel, Rainbirds, is a narrative of grief, love and pain. The novel’s protagonist, Ren Ishida, has just graduated from college and is about to start his new life when he receives word of his sister Keiko’s murder. The story begins as he arrives in the small town of Akakawa to sort out his sister’s affairs and collect her belongings from the police. Ren decides to take up his sister’s old teaching job in Akakawa to find out more about her secretive life after she left their home in Tokyo to come to this small country town. There are numerous mysteries in the town of Akakawa: Why did his sister come to this small town? Why was she killed? While he is staying in the home of a local politician, Mr. Katou, Ren is haunted by a recurring dream about a mysterious young girl with pigtails. She seems so familiar, yet he can’t remember from where. Was it his sister as a child or his hosts’ late daughter?
Through his journey, Ren meets many characters that help him begin his new life and unravel the web of connections and relationships that his sister left behind. He discovers more about his own relationship with his sister and uncovers the life of a girl hiding trauma and secrets. The intent of the murder is mysterious, but the book does not center on Keiko’s death. It instead focuses on the victim's connections and the people she left behind, especially her little brother who had idolized her. Through the many pieces and memories that she left behind, Goenawan creates a very real picture of a person who was simultaneously loved and wounded.
Of all the people Ren meets in Akakawa, none have such an effect on him as much as Seven Star, one of his students who takes a strong interest in him. As her teacher, Ren tries to keep his distance, but she finds a way to bump into him again and again. At first their meetings are casual, and Ren takes a liking to this strangely confident but troubled girl. Yet as they spend more time together, he begins to feel uneasy about their relationship. He remembers his sister and her high school teacher Mr. Tsuda and how their affair had left his sister broken and confused. Their relationship comes to a head one night as Seven Star follows Ren to his apartment to seduce him. Seven Star’s character is interesting; her story highlights how trauma and hurt is passed down through generations. She shoplifts, ditches class and often will wander away from home. Seven Star’s life is uncovered through their meetings and her story is revealed to be very similar to Keiko’s. Yet Ren's relationship with both of them is different, and he is blinded from seeing their similarities. Goenawan unfolds both of their stories parallel to each other, allowing the reader to get very close to both perspectives of their intertwined stories. What Ren doesn't know is that Seven Star holds the secret to his sister’s murder.
All the people Ren meets in Akakawa have been hurt, and all of them carry secrets. He is given lodging in the house of the mysterious politician, Mr. Katou, under one condition: that he read to his wife. Ms. Katou has hidden herself away in her room for many years, refusing to speak or move after the death of her daughter. Ren dutifully comes every day to read to her, but there are certain days when he can’t bring himself face-to-face with so much pain. Her pain is not only grief but also the guilt of a dark secret that has paralyzed her. But what exactly did she do? In one chapter, Ren gets a call from his old friend, Jin, who asks him to spend the last of his bachelorhood with him before his unwanted marriage. He tells Ren he has gotten a girl pregnant and is being forced to marry her. Up until the very end, Jin is always optimistic that things will work out. It is very telling that a few years after their encounter, Ren learns that he has had a messy divorce, and he never hears from Jin again. A recurring theme in the book is infidelity. One sees infidelity from many angles: from the side of Jin and Ren frivolously trying to hook up with girls, to the dire consequences for those who have been cheated on.
Goenawan beautifully brings the many disparate stories together and ties up the many mysteries of Akakawa. Part of the joy of this book was meeting all the different people that populate the small town. Through the book, the reader meets them all very naturally. Each character's story feels very real and brings life to the small town. However, the pacing of Rainbirds was often choppy, sometimes dragging on with too much detail and then rushing through crucial plot points in just a few pages. At times, Ren’s own story progressed slowly while Goenawan developed the other characters. The story would delve deeply into multiple minor characters, such as Ms. Katou’s estranged sister or Ren’s old friend Jin, only to forget about them a few chapters later. Also, there is a lot of dialogue that does not really build up any of the characters, but exists more to create atmosphere. For example, Ren’s relationship with the other teachers does not build up their characters, but rather makes the school seem full of everyday monotony. While these sections did add a certain humanness to his time in Akakawa, the story dragged at these moments.
The ending, as a result of the aforementioned choppy pace and organization of the writing, felt rushed and muddled. The uncovering of his sister’s murder was a beautiful revelation that tied many of the story lines together, yet the resolution felt rushed since it was condensed into about two chapters at the very end of the book. So much of the book was devoted to building the different story lines and mysteries of each of the characters, only to be resolved in the last few pages. In the end, Ren solves the mystery of his sister’s murder, yet it wasn't entirely clear how he made the connection. It felt as if there was another piece of the puzzle that had not been fully unpacked. The revelation took me by surprise, though it elegantly tied up all the story lines into a wonderful tale.
Rainbirds beautifully places the reader into the events of the small town and allows its characters to tell their individual stories. Each character’s story is connected by pain: pain through loss or pain through betrayal. Through Ren, the reader is introduced to many different perspectives on loss and how it affects each person. Goenawan masterfully weaves a web of interconnected stories that investigates how pain is passed down generations and how people are shaped by love and loss. Rainbirds is as much about Ren as it is about the other people that were also affected by Keiko’s death. Through Goenawan’s colorful storytelling, one follows Ren to a feeling of closure as he realizes the complex life and death of his sister, who served as both his role model and his closest friend.