Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan (Contemporary Novel, 2018).

Ren Ishida heard of his sister’s violent and mysterious death just after finishing his graduate degree at one of the top universities in Japan. Keiko was long-estranged from the rest of the family, though she spoke to Ren through weekly phone calls. She’d been living in a smallish town (at least compared to their native Tokyo) nestled between the sea and the mountains. Ren is the only family member to come for the funeral. He collects her ashes then stays over, to finish up Keiko’s affairs–and to investigate her death. In the process, he agrees to temporarily replace her as a teacher at a cram school (the very Japanese version of a high-pressure private high school, where students study furiously to be able to get into one of the “best” colleges) and even moves into a powerful politician’s home rent-free, as long as he helps care for the local bigwig’s clinically depressed/near-catatonic wife.

As he investigates the life of the beloved big sister it turns out he hardly knew, he encounters plenty of eccentric locals, including a rebellious teenaged student he’s dangerously drawn to and the fellow teacher who was Keiko’s never-mentioned boyfriend. All the while, he tries to sort out his shaky relationship with his longtime girlfriend back in the big city. He also mentally relives key moments from his past that help him finally better understand his sister (and his own, kind of repressed personality).

The author, an Indonesian-born resident of Singapore, has won multiple literary awards for her short fiction in various venues around the world. This, Clarissa Goenawan’s first novel, makes for a haunting and strong book-length debut.

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