Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Can a Murder Mystery Be Tender? Yes, with RAINBIRDS by Clarissa Goenawan

Soho Crime has just added to its Japanese mysteries by publishing the debut novel of Clarissa Goenawan, RAINBIRDS. It couldn't be much more different from the work of Fuminori Nakamura, whose spare, literary noir with crime twists (also from Soho Crime) comes with both power and significant darkness -- instead, Goenawan (born in Indonesia, now living in Singapore) has taken the formalized and gender-forced culture of Japan and embedded in it a work of deep tenderness and ardent storytelling.

The young man who narrates RAINBIRDS is named Ren Ishida; he is about to take his graduate degree in English literature when he gets word that his sister Keiko, whom he hasn't seen in years, is a murder victim, stabbed in the street on a rainy night in a small city quite distant from the siblings' original home in Tokyo. Since he's not needed in Tokyo -- his grad work is all done except for the final ceremony -- he races off to the scene of Keiko's death. And, in a quirky follow-up to the mystery of her life of the past few years, he agrees to temporarily take on her duties teaching English at a cram school. Will he discover who his sister was and why she was killed?

Goenawan clearly has written her own English language here -- no translator involved -- but there is a slight stiltedness to the prose that reminds me of well-done translations from the Japanese. I suspect this also reflects a difference in how a Pacific-Rim novel described different levels of thought and action, in contrast to an American or British one. Here's a sample from one of the more moving moments of RAINBIRDS, when Ren leaves his unexpected housing in the middle of the night to experience what his sister might have, at the same time of night, in the park where she was murdered:
I lay down on the ground, panting. The rain hit my face, but I stayed still and closed my eyes. All I could hear was the sound of rain.

My sister should have been able to guess nobody would come in this kind of weather. She would have known she was about to die. What was on her mind in those final minutes?  Had she thought about Mr. Tsuda, or the guy she had gone out with in Akakawa? Had she thought about me?

Since the day my sister had left Tokyo, I'd hoped for her return, but I'd never told her that. Had I been too proud, or too indifferent? If I'd asked her to come back, would she still be alive?

I clenched my fists. No use asking myself that now -- no answer would bring her back. The day my sister died, a part of me died, too.
Ren's continued probing of his sister's murder will give him a fresh view of who she was and what the relationship between the two of them, stranded by their embattled parents, had really, meant. At the same time, he questions his own behaviors -- perhaps very Japanese ones in terms of having sex with prostitutes and casual partners for one-night stands, but also his inability to commit to the woman who wants to marry him.

I would certainly read another book from Goenawan, and wonder whether the Japanese feel of her writing would continue if she places future novels in other locations, or whether it is somehow part of her personal style. Mystery readers who feel strongly about the conventions of the genre may not be happy with the way RAINBIRDS carves out its terrain. But those who already enjoy Asian literature (including work by Kenzaburo Oe and Haruki Murakami) and those accustomed to the genre bending that takes place in modern noir work will find themselves unexpectedly at home in this less dark, yet self-inquiring, work. Released today by Soho Crime (Soho Press).

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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