In 2015, Indonesian-born Singaporean author Clarissa Goenawan won the prestigious Bath Novel Award for unpublished and self-published novelists for her novel Rainbirds, which—some two years later—is now seeing the light of day.
Rainbirds is set in 1990s Japan. In the small, fictional town of Akakawa, Keiko Ishida has just been murdered. In Tokyo, her brother Ren, the narrator, drops everything, including, temporarily, his girlfriend, to rush to the scene. Keiko was older than Ren by 9 years; when he was a child, she was more a mother than a sister. Now, in some ways, Ren seems to slip into her life: he takes over both her job teaching English in a cram school, and her lodgings in the distinctly creepy Katou household: Mrs Katou is mentally ill and kept out of sight; Mr and Mrs Katou had a young daughter who died in mysterious circumstances.
While living in some ways as Keiko lived, Ren tries to make sense of aspects of his sister’s life that were previously hidden from him, and thereby, too, aspects of his own life currently mysterious to him. He is also keen to uncover the circumstances of the Katous’ daughter’s death, and, of course, to discover who killed his sister, and why.
The complications and resolutions of these various plots and subplots, which intersect and converse with each other throughout the novel, could have been confusing, but Goenawan handles them with aplomb. In her hands, what could have been a conventional whodunit—who killed Keiko?—turns into a psychological study of adulterers, and adultery, as Ren struggles to understand himself, his sister, and their shared past. In combining elements of a fast-paced genre crime novel, with Ren’s quieter, slower reflection on his sister’s life, Goenawan offers a moving investigation of love, loss, and grief.
Goenawan emphasises Ren’s lack of sentimentality by giving him a voice which is cool and understated throughout. Some of his observations are dryly funny, so readers will crack a smile despite the grimness of some of Goenawan’s material.
Despite his restraint, Ren makes some arresting mental leaps:
The giant windows were adorned with thin lace curtains. They waved around as the wind blew, reminding me of goldfish tails.
Goldfish, not rainbirds, adorn the cover of Rainbirds, and they crop up again in a dream Ren has of a mysterious little girl with pigtails. Who is she? Keiko? The Katous’ dead daughter? Some other lost girl? Whoever she is, in Ren’s dream, the two of them stand beneath a school of goldfish swimming through air saturated with bubbles of water:
The flying goldfish danced above us, sweeping their translucent glittering tails while avoiding the balls of water. I was dazzled. They looked so elegant. Suddenly, the goldfish charged at the bubbles, bursting them. Cold water splashed everywhere, and a bright light flashed from the distance. I shielded my eyes with my hands. Squinting, I remembered the little girl and looked for her, but she’d run off.
This dream is one of many Ren recounts—the novel opens with him dreaming of his sister. Characters telling their dreams can be irritating in novels, but the way Goenawan moves between the reality of Ren’s dreams, and the reality of the physical world never feels forced, or manipulative.
An author who recounts dreams asks the reader to think about interpretation, explanation, and perception. Akakawa has a well-realised sense of place, and research into Japanese habits and lifestyle is never intrusive. Goenawan, as Ren, is good on culturally specific details. After Keiko’s funeral Ren comments: “I needed to shower to wash away the scent of the funeral incense.” Yet even the name of her fictional town emphasises her challenge to unitary explanation. “Aka” is from the Japanese for “red”, and “kawa” from the word for “river”. Ren learns the town got its name either from maple leaves falling into the local river, thus making the water look red, or else from blood making the river run red, after a brawl between two groups of farmers—the victorious group threw their slain enemies’ corpses into the river.
Goenawan’s Japanese setting, her first-person narrator, her reliance on realities other than the realities of the physical world, her use of strange coincidences and multiple plots, and her insistence there is rarely a single, easily-perceived interpretation of a story are for all appearances deliberate connections to Murakami, but Rainbirds does not feel derivative; whatever Goenawan’s reasons for paying homage to Japanese sensibility, Ren has his own, distinctive voice.
If the purpose of the Bath Prize is to catalyze publication of interesting novels, it has succeeded with Rainbirds.