Clarissa Goenawan’s haunting debut novel, Rainbirds, has been likened to Haruki Murakami’s earlier work, and the comparisons are apt —for more layered reasons than might initially appear. For instance, yes, there are elements that are trademarks of Murakami’s novels —jazz music, a lone male protagonist, a whodunnit mystery, and an eccentric young woman to tie it all together —but much like Murakami’s own multi-faceted characters, Goenawan’s are hardly stand-ins for someone else’s stories.
Rather, the world that Goenawan has created in her novel is unique, sequestered from literary tropes, and in some cases, reality. The book is at once a mystery, a study in magical realism, and a fictionalized imagining of what it would be like to personify emotions like love, loss, desire, and guilt.
The story revolves around a soft-spoken, observant young man named Ren Ishida and begins just as he is traveling to Akakawa, a fictional small town outside of Tokyo, where his older sister Keiko was brutally stabbed to death some days ago. It’s clear even from the opening lines of the novel that the narrative is not meant to be one wholly grounded in reality.
“At first, nothing was unusual,”Goenawan writes. “I was on the phone with my sister. She sat at her desk by the window in her rented room in Akakawa. The sun shone through the curtain, casting brown highlights on her long dark hair. She asked me question after question, but I just mumbled one-word answers, impatient for the conversation to be over. But then, before my eyes, she crumbled and turned to ashes.”
Within the first few pages of the book, Ren is offered Keiko’s teaching position at a prestigious cram school, and room and board at the politician’s home where she had taken residence for the past few years. He is, in essence, following in her footsteps in order to get closer to her —in the end, however, he mostly gets closer to himself.
Ren is seeking some kind of resolve in traveling to Akakawa —ostensibly, an answer to the looming question of who killed his sister —but in the process of trying to track down the murderer (with the oft-absent help of Detective Hideyoshi Oda), he also begins to unpack the long-dormant memories of his tumultuous childhood, and reckon with the role Keiko played in his upbringing. Over the course of the novel, he meets a number of enigmatic characters, including the sullen politician and his silent wife; a deaf neighbor who only emerges from his apartment after nightfall; a hotel owner with a devastating past; and a young female student who challenges him and seduces him with her own tormented teenage angst.
Through these characters, the novel brings to light several universal questions that resist clean-cut answers: who are we to each other? How do we connect the dots that constitute our living narratives? And does moving on necessitate forgetting the past?
It is important to note that Goenawan is able to expertly nudge her readers to think on these questions using her characters, because they are all, for their quirks and idiosyncrasies, believable humans caught at different points within the inescapable cycle of love and loss. Whereas Ren’s mission to find Keiko’s killer is one driven by loss, he is also very much motivated by love —for her, for his inability to retain love in his own relationships, for his still-unformed understanding of what it even means to him. Similarly, each of the other characters’own stories speak to the intertwined elements of love and loss.
Rio Nakajima, the precocious, sharp-tongued student who catches Ren’s attention, is a good example of this. At just 17, she seems to Ren to be wise beyond her years, but he feels oddly protective of her, especially after learning that her mother has up and left her and her self-deprecating father. Her loss —a mother who abandoned her —is reminiscent of Ren’s own childhood, with a mother who was so often absent, and for this reason, perhaps, he subconsciously connects their narratives of loss and absence to one another. Rio, whom he refers to as Seven Stars, becomes a different kind of mission for Ren, one in which he wants to save her from self-destruction; an easy interpretation here is that Ren is still reckoning with the fact that he couldn’t save Keiko.
It’s a theme that Goenawan explores at length, and in different instances, throughout the novel: loneliness and the human desire for connection. Ren feels isolated from many of the people around him —even from his own parents back in Tokyo —and he wonders if this very loneliness is what led to Keiko’s death. Each of the characters that Goenawan presents in Rainbirdsseems to be lost in their own vortex of melancholy, but this seemingly natural state of disconnect also serves to highlight the moments when two characters do enter each other’s orbits.
“Other than that, we were quiet,”she writes of a spontaneous joy ride Ren went on with a mystery stranger who later resurfaces in the most unlikely place. “I guessed we both needed the company, but neither of us wanted to talk. We just wanted to be with someone so we wouldn’t be alone.”
In the end, this feels to be the truest insight into why Goenawan’s debut novel feels at once so familiar and so disorienting: she is writing about themes that have long been dissected in other works, by other fictive authors with more titles to their names. But her purpose here doesn’t seem to be to throw the reader into an unforgivingly dense thicket of doom and gloom. Instead, it feels as though she is immersing readers in the unpredictable ocean of interaction and abandonment so that those connections that aremade are highlighted all the more.
Because in her world, there is no such thing as coincidence —just a belated sense of understanding.