Video Book Review: Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan

Rainbirds is a beautiful portrait of grief.

Ren and his sister Keiko grew up in an unhappy home in Tokyo. With their parents fighting or absent most of the time, Ren depended on his sister for hot meals, affection, everything.

As adults, their relationship remains warm, but distant. When Ren hears of Keiko’s murder, he dutifully travels to Akakawa, the small Japanese town where she had lived, to gather her belongings.

While there, he falls into Keiko’s life, taking the job she had, living where she did, making the same friends. He moves through her life and through his grief slowly, deciding to stay for a full six months to fully settle her affairs.

Reading Rainbirds is much like the experience I had when reading Idaho by Emily Ruskovich. The book doesn’t rush from one plot point to the next. It sits in its grief, building the lush, melancholy atmosphere in heavy layers.

Where Idaho remained frustratingly static, though, Rainbirds moves forward. We do find out what happened to Ren’s sister, even though the murder seems secondary to the quiet turmoil roiling within Ren himself. The murder’s not the point. Rather, it’s more of a catalyst.

I had to work hard to overcome my ethnocentric American views with this story.

I kept wondering, why doesn’t Ren weep? Where’s his cathartic grieving period? The world in this story is much more subdued and slow-moving. It’s not unusual for a conversation to have long, silent pauses in which someone contemplatively stares into the distance. And Ren, with his passive self, doesn’t seem capable of facing his grief head on. Perhaps it’s cultural, as this book is set in Japan. Perhaps it’s purely his character trait.

Ren himself is easy to dislike. He holds people at an emotional distance, especially women. We see his promiscuous ways as he passively and carelessly moves from one women to the next. He never even calls his girlfriend to tell her his sister had died and he’s left Tokyo.

Rather than being a statement on Ren’s misanthropy, I see it as a sign of the unspoken hold his sister has on him. She was all he had during his formative years, to the exclusion of everyone else. That detachment has followed him into adulthood, and he must work through it as he works through his grief.

There is a lot of dreamy imagery here. Usually, I’m impatient with dream sequences. I’d much rather get back to the actual story. I had to force myself to slow down and live in the reverie, allowing the imagery to be an integral part of the narrative.

But still, we could have done with fewer dreams.

When looking at Rainbirds as a series of somewhat meaningless events or even as a mystery, it’s easy to be frustrated with it. But when viewing Rainbirds as a portrait of a quietly desperate man grappling with his grief, its beauty and poignancy becomes much sharper.

Watch this and other book reviews on my Read Remark booktube/YouTube channel.

    • Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan
    • Published March 2018
    • Soho Press
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