I have a new goal for the summer: write more individual book reviews.
Did I just jinx myself? Probably.
Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan is another library book that made me think and feel an unexpected number of things. It follows Ren Ishida, who travels to a small town in Japan where his sister, Keiko, ran away to years before. Keiko has just been found stabbed to death in the rain. Despite their weekly phone calls, Ren has always felt the emotional distance from his bubbly, caring older sister. In hopes of learning more about her life, he impulsively accepts her job teaching English at the cram school in town and moves into her room at a politician’s house, where he will take on Keiko’s role of reading to the man’s bed-ridden wife. In the same vein as Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, Rainbirds is more of a contemporary than a mystery. Ren discovers Keiko was hiding more than a few secrets and even comes face to face with his own life decisions.
Though I went into Rainbirds expecting a more domestic mystery set in Japan, I’m not disappointed in how it turned out. The book was a quick and easy read, with flashbacks between past and present that managed to flow well. As far as I know, Rainbirds is a debut novel. The writing was still lovely. From what I’ve read in reviews, Akakawa, the town the novel is set in, is fictional. The author created a dark, beautiful small town atmosphere. It felt run-down and isolated yet exotic at the same time. Akakawa was as mysterious as many of its inhabitants.
Normally, contemporary novels like this focus on very bad sibling/family relationships. However, Ren and Keiko had a healthy brother/sister dynamic. Keiko was nine years older than her brother and, because of their parents’ tumultuous relationship, she often had to step in as a parental figure. Though there was a lot of responsibility placed on her shoulders, she never took her frustration out on Ren and continued to treat him with concern and compassion. She kept in contact with him even after she impulsively ran away when he entered high school, which is probably why Ren never held any bitterness towards her for it. Yet both siblings are private, independent people, making it harder for them to share troubling events going on in their lives with each other.
The overall arching theme of Rainbirds is “people are complicated.” That includes Ren, who is completely dominated by his Id and screws up a lot in his personal relationships. There is another character, a female student at the cram school, who he finds himself in trouble with. Despite this, Ren isn’t unlikeable. He acknowledges when he’s messed up and there are situations where he gets himself out before things go too far.
If you are looking for a book without romance, I recommend Rainbirds. Ren is a commitment phobe, although it is not written like a flaw. Some people are not interested in long-term relationships, preferring to live independently. That opinion won’t change with “the right person” either. Ren is one of those types of independent people, though he somehow tends to involve himself with women who are looking for the opposite. Usually, it’s how he causes himself, as well as other people, a world of grief.
One element in Rainbirds that I view as both a con as well as a pro is that not all questions are answered. At least, they are not answered clearly; more on the basis of assumption. Not having all the answers is annoying, especially since one of those questions was a pretty big one. At the same time, not all questions presented in real life are answered. Rainbirds isn’t a fantasy, so it shouldn’t be written like one. But I know for many readers, this could be extremely frustrating.
While Ren is smart, there are times when he comes to certain conclusions you have no idea how he got there. To me, it felt more like “cold reading”: he had a theory about someone, threw his suspicions at them, and then watched how they reacted. Most times, this was confusing.
Then, there is the closest thing to a “plot twist” Rainbirds had. When it was introduced, it felt as though the author pulled it out of thin air simply for the purpose of shock value. There was the bare minimum of nonexistent evidence provided to support of how this revelation could have happened. It was so, so out there.
Overall, I give Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan 4.5 stars. I enjoyed the beautiful writing and complex characters. If you are looking for an adult contemporary novel set in another country or if you enjoyed Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, I highly recommend this novel.