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Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan
Literary fiction

Rainbirds

Debut
We love supporting debut authors. Congrats, Clarissa Goenawan, on your first book!

by Clarissa Goenawan

Quick take

Set in Japan, Rainbirds is a quietly powerful novel about a young man searching for answers in the wake of his sister's murder.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_HeavyRead

    Heavy read

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Psychological

    Psychological

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Cerebral

    Cerebral

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_International

    International

Illustrated icon, Icon_Challenging_Indicator

FYI

  • Plot is not action-oriented
  • Exposition is cerebral in nature
  • Occasional dark themes

Why I love it

Siobhan Jones
BOTM Editorial Team

Part of being on the editorial team here at BOTM means that I read the opening chapters of literally dozens of books each month. When I come across a story that makes me slow down and not look up until I’ve read from cover to cover, I know I’ve found something special.

This happened to me with Rainbirds. The writing grabbed me immediately—it’s whispery and elegant. Even the chapter titles are evocative, like snatches of barely-remembered dreams or vivid memories from the narrator’s life. On page one, we learn that Ren’s sister, a polite cram school teacher named Keiko, has recently died. There’s a police investigation, of course, but almost immediately, the story veers off the “whodunit” track. Seeking answers, Ren takes over Keiko’s job, moves into her former residence … and finds himself pulled down a path of self-discovery. He forges an unlikely friendship with an old, mysteriously silent woman. He explores newfound intimacies and reconsiders old girlfriends. Yes, he’s searching for Keiko. But he’s also searching for himself.

Reading this book is like flipping through a stranger’s polaroids pictures—it contains snapshots of a life lived simply, as well as unanswered questions lurking just out of reach. This is not a page-turner in the traditional sense, but rather a moving depiction of grief and regret. A book to read deeply (and not necessarily quickly), I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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Synopsis

Ren Ishida has nearly completed his graduate degree at Keio University when he receives news of his sister’s violent death. Keiko was stabbed one rainy night on her way home, and there are no leads. Ren heads to Akakawa to conclude his sister’s affairs, failing to understand why she chose to turn her back on the family and Tokyo for this desolate place years ago.

But then Ren is offered Keiko’s newly vacant teaching position at a prestigious local cram school and her bizarre former arrangement of free lodging at a wealthy politician’s mansion in exchange for reading to the man’s ailing wife. He accepts both, abandoning Tokyo and his crumbling relationship there in order to better understand his sister’s life and what took place the night of her death.

As Ren comes to know the eccentric local figures, from the enigmatic politician who’s boarding him to his fellow teachers and a rebellious, captivating young female student, he delves into his shared childhood with Keiko and what followed. Haunted in his dreams by a young girl who is desperately trying to tell him something, Ren realizes that Keiko Ishida kept many secrets, even from him.

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Member thoughts

All (2466)
All (2466)
Love (509)
Like (1416)
Dislike (541)
2574 ratings
  • 20% Love
  • 55% Like
  • 21% Dislike
  • Kalamazoo, MI

    Mysterious adventure through a brother’s mind searching for insight into his sister’s puzzling & unexpected old life. Ren’s conflicted character brings a darkness you’ll come to appreciate at the end.

  • New York, NY

    This book wasn’t my first choice for BOTM but I’m so glad I landed on it. It’s haunting, beautifully written and one of my favorite books of 2018. I feel like I’m grieving on the character’s behalf.

  • Washington , DC

    I inhaled this book. I was immersed in the MC’s grief process/his interactions w/ the strangeness of Akakawa. A Murakamiesque, surreal journey to self-discovery & an intimate read worth the time spent

  • South Amboy, NJ

    This is the fourth book I have read from BOTM. I liked the stories on the first three but the righting was awful. Rainbirds was head and shoulders over the other three. Great writing, story & ending!

  • Apex, NC

    A beautifully written mystery novel that is a delight to read! Ren's sister, Keiko is murdered in Akakawa, Japan. Ren follows the secretive life that Keiko led, solves her murder, and finds himself.

  • New York , NY

    Wasn’t sure what to expect from the reviews, very polarizing. I personally loved it. I was entertained, it was an easy and enjoyable read. I cared about the characters and the pacing was just right!

  • Rockwood , PA

    Think I prefer Asian contemp/literary fiction to American!Unique blend of culture, mystery, daily life, romance & bit of magical realism.So many twists & turns!Some find this 1 slow, I blew through it

  • New City, NY

    Interesting thoughts on a family/sibling relationship after death. Sometimes too much is left unsaid. I say this as the oldest of 5. I finished this book feeling wistful for almost all the characters.

  • San Diego, CA

    The minimal prose makes this book a very unique and light read, despite the heavy subject matter. The prose combined with the mystical and surreal moments turns the book into a story that feels fresh.

  • Saint Petersburg, FL

    This book was exactly what I was hoping it would be. (How often can you say that?) I picked this one not only for the gorgeous cover, but I wanted a slow building murder mystery set in a small town i

  • Oskaloosa, IA

    It really wasn't what I expected and being an American reading about a different culture it really did shock me. The things normal in Japan are not normal in America. I would love more of Rens life.

  • North Hollywood, CA

    Traditional Japanese cultural mores included without taking away from the current time/space setting. I chose the book thinking I wouldn't enjoy it. I was wrong and am happy I expanded my boundaries.

  • West St. Paul, MN

    A quick read about discovery. The mystery was a quiet part of the book. More important is a young man's journey while grieving his sister and learning that we only ever know one version of a person.

  • Wrightwood, CA

    Overall this was a good read! I thoroughly enjoyed the characters in this novel, however, it felt like the ending was very abrupt. I never did figure out how the protagonist discovered the truth.

  • Waddell, AZ

    I was intrigued by this book. While it moved a bit slow, it never really went in the direction that I expected it to which kept me on the edge of my seat, wondering what was going to happen next!

  • Bothell , WA

    Such a beautifully written account of a brother trying to make sense of his sister’s death. It had a lightness of touch despite the deep subject matter and is unlike anything I’ve read before.

  • Palmyra, NY

    RAINBIRDS has that detached retrospection common in many stories set in Southeast Asia. Reminiscent of Murakami's characters, Ren Ishida sifts through grief and the mysteries of human connection.

  • Austin, TX

    This book really caught me off guard. It starts as kind of a "whodunit" but evolves into a much more important story than that. It's really more about the MC's struggle to move on and truly live.

  • San Antonio, TX

    Rainbirds caught me immediately with its amazing cover and its summary. Goenawan's writing is deceptively simple, and every word is artfully chosen. It's a slow read, but I never lost interest.

  • Leander, TX

    Excellent, relaxing read. It is reflective rather than intense (even though a mystery about a death is the heart of the plot), so it's not a speed-rap page-turning thriller, but still lovely.

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