Turning Japanese: A Review of “Rainbirds” by Clarissa Goenawan

Rainbirds 3.5 out of 5

Pairs well with: Scotch, Rainy Afternoons

I wanted to hate Rainbirds, I really did. Some of the turns of phrase seemed too on the nose, the plot devices too convenient. I rolled my eyes at the pigtailed dream-girl. It seemed weird that the narrator, a 1990s Japanese male in his mid-twenties, repeatedly called his overnight bag a “Boston” bag. Rainbirds, however, is too enjoyable of a book to avoid because of its shortcomings.

The story is deceivingly simple: a man in his final months of graduate school travels to rural Japan to wrap up matters in the wake of his sister’s murder and ends up taking her old job as an evening “cram school” teacher. Cram school is what Japanese students do from 2:30-10:00 after regular school hours in order to get decent college placement. This protagonist was exceptionally close to his sister, so he wants to commune with her spirit to find out what her last moments were like, thereby solving the mystery of her death by walking in her footsteps. During the day, he partakes in long jogging sessions around the town, probably trying to stave off his burgeoning attraction to one of his older students. Late nights after working at the cram school, he ruminates about his relationship with his sister while drinking beer with one of her colleagues.

There are maybe five characters too many and a couple unnecessary red herrings, but the book has its strengths. I have never been to rural Japan, (and I am not sure if the author has either), but Rainbirds transported me to this weird, charming world of kimono women in business hotels, cram schools, and Seven Stars cigarettes. It was all peculiar enough to be convincing. So interesting, in fact, I kept turning pages. And while the resolution of the mystery is not particularly satisfying, Rainbirds built an effective noir-ish atmosphere that stuck with me days after I finished it.

Verdict: A guilty pleasure well worth reading.