The next day, I had a high fever and terrible headache as expected, but my sister didn’t return. Mother bought porridge and medicine, but she had to leave at the usual time.
“I’m sorry, but I promised my friends I would come over.” She wrote down a phone number on the calendar. “If your fever gets worse and you need me to take you to the hospital, just call Mrs. Koyama and ask for me.”
I nodded, knowing I wouldn’t call. She was going for mahjong and they needed four players. They couldn’t continue with one player missing. Just like my sister and me. We needed each other. Or had it just been me?
I remember lying on my bed with that horrible cold, feeling alone. When I think about it now, it’s so embarrassing that so many years later, I ended up in the exact same situation. This time, too, I felt like she had abandoned me. And this time, too, she wouldn’t return. “Keiko Ishida, why did you always leave without a word?” I closed my eyes and drifted to sleep.
–Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan
Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan
Rainbirds is a mystery novel about Ren Ishida, a young man who, after his sister Keiko’s murder, travels to the small town where Keiko was working. Soon, Ren finds himself living in Keiko’s old room, employed at the school where Keiko had worked. As Ren attempts to fit into Keiko’s world, he begins to discover the secrets that she had been keeping from him.
The setting is undoubtedly my favorite aspect of Rainbirds because there was so much incredible detail crammed into the narrative. As a person who has never been to Japan, I was fascinated by the cultural similarities and differences between the Midwest town where I live, and the small town where the plot of Rainbirds takes place. Ren was raised by his sister Keiko, and their parents are often absent, though not much is said about where they were or what they were doing when outside of the house. This was definitely one of the biggest differences – while there are certainly families in the Midwest with absent parents, the kids usually at least have an idea of what their parents are doing, whether they are partying or working long hours or traveling. The absence of Keiko and Ren’s parents felt odd to me, but the narrative seemed to suggest that it was not abnormal. The culture of the cram school where Keiko taught also felt odd to me – I am used to long lists of credentials and lots of experience for teachers to be eligible to work at schools, but Ren was quickly hired before he was even finished with his degree. The novel definitely made it feel like the school was in a rush to hire someone, but I still can’t imagine a teacher being hired that quickly in the US. That being said, there were still quite a few cultural echoes – a child acting out when her parents aren’t getting along, familial tensions between parents and their two children, the closeness between brother and sister, stigma about mental health… there was definitely a lot of familiarity in the relationships of the book, and those similarities made the differences in the small details all the more interesting.
As much as I loved being absorbed in the rich culture of a small town in Japan, I do feel that the pacing was a bit too slow for the narrative. This was not a fast-paced action mystery, but there was still a murder that needed solving, and sometimes the plot seemed like it was falling a bit off the tracks. Ultimately, I was happy with the resolution of the novel and I don’t feel that there was anything irrelevant, but I do think a quicker pace could have solved the doubts I felt about a third of the way through.
The slower pace of Rainbirds did at least allow the author to take her time with character development, and that definitely paid off in the narrative. Many of the characters in Rainbirds started off seeming a bit like tropes, but as backstories were revealed, the characters grew in complexity and interest. Keiko of course was the main focus of the book, and her unpleasant childhood and young adulthood made Keiko a fascinating and highly sympathetic character. Ren started off seeming distant and odd, but as his own childhood and his close relationship with Keiko was revealed, Ren too felt realistic and interesting. Even the supporting characters were fascinating, from Seven Stars to her parents to the other teachers at the school, the author managed to capture the feel of quirky characters in a small town without every one of them feeling like a trope.
In all, I will give Rainbirds an 8 out of 10. This novel is definitely more of a drama than a mystery novel, but the characters and setting make for a fantastic sketch of small town Japan, while the mystery adds direction and interest to the plot, even when the pacing seems to drag a little. Readers of literary fiction and drama will definitely enjoy this one, and mystery readers should like it too, as long as they don’t mind letting the mystery resolve itself through character development and back story.