University student Miwako Sumida has committed suicide and her small group of friends are caught completely off guard, yet determined to search for answers behind her death. Set mainly in Tokyo, Indonesian-born Clarissa Goenawan’s second novel, The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida, is a haunting story of friendship in young adulthood and how—even before social media—people are not often as they appear.
Goenawan captures a time—1990—when Japanese young adults have few cares apart from studying and forging friendships before separating into closely defined gender roles of salarymen and office ladies. Miwako and her friends are mostly second year students at Waseda University.
The first part of the novel is told through the first person perspective of Ryusei, a tall, attractive student who falls in love with the reserved and plain Miwako. As much as Ryusei asks her out, he cannot convince Miwako to date him. She values their friendship too much to risk ruining it should they date and break up. Yet the pair becomes inseparable after bonding at a quaint English bookstore.
An old man named Ikeda owned a small secondhand bookshop around the corner. Screw holes marked the place where the shop signboard should have hung. The placard had fallen down a long time ago, and he had never bothered to fix it. Regulars simply called the place Ikeda Bookshop, and I’d frequented it since high school.
The next two sections of the novel are narrated by the third-person perspectives of Miwako’s friend, Chie, and Ryusei’s older sister, an artist named Fumi. Chie feels guilty for not saving her friend and Fumi worries over her brother’s despair after Miwako’s death.
Chie and Ryusei set out to find the woods where Miwako took her life in a small town hours from Tokyo. In the period before mobile phones, Chie and Ryu’s attempts to trace Miwako’s final days entail a long train journey, a bus ride and a walk.
The bus ride from the train station to the mountain was arduous. Ryusei and Chie were the only passengers. On the journey, the bus didn’t make a single stop. The road wound through forests and fields and across bridges over rivers. Jizo statues stood by the roadside, some decorated with flowers. Ryusei and Chie got off at the foot of the mountain. Once they stepped out, fresh air filled their lungs and took away their fatigue. Before them was an unpaved hiking path with a small, worn sign that read, THIS WAY TO KITSUYAMA.
The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida is both engaging and somber. It will have no doubt by this point registered that as reminiscent of The Aosawa Murders and Convenience Store Woman as The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida may be, Goenawan is not Japanese. Nor is she a member of that other group of usual suspects, Caucasian expats, who set fiction in Japan. Yet Goenawan, who has settled in Singapore, evidently understands Japanese culture and places well enough to populate her novel with a cast solely of Japanese characters (as she did in Rainbirds, her debut novel). Apart from getting to the heart of Japanese teens and young adults, Goenawan’s descriptive passages display her knowledge of the Japanese countryside. It’s hard to overemphasize how unusual this still is: when Asians write in English about “somewhere else”, it is usually one of the main diasporic destinations: America, Britain, or Australia.