book review: Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan


RAINBIRDS by Clarissa Goenawan
Soho Press, March 6, 2018

Rainbirds by Haruki Murakami – sorry, Clarissa Goenawan – is about a man who attempts to investigate the murder of his sister by traveling to her home in Akakawa. It’s also the most derivative book I’ve ever read.

Look, I don’t usually mind when the influence of another author is clearly present in a novel. Writers are influenced by other writers, this is how art has always been created. If We Were Villains is like The Secret HistoryThe Book Collector is like Rebecca. It happens. But where the novels I just cited each have their own voice, their own distinctive characters, their own intriguing stories to tell, Rainbirds just… doesn’t. My main problem with this book is that I’ve read it before, but it was called The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle then.

I do like Murakami, but I have to admit there’s a certain formula to his novels. Clarissa Goenawan follows that formula to a T. There’s the apathetic, attractive-yet-disinterested protagonist, Ren (Toru Okada, Toru Watanabe), the fiesty young loner girl who captures his interest, Seven Stars (May Kasahara, Midori…), and several alluring women who wallpaper the background of the novel, all of whom confide inexplicably in the protagonist and share their life stories with him. The Apathetic Everyman protagonist is searching for something, but he isn’t quite sure what, and he needs to be drawn into the lives of these random strangers in order to achieve clarity, in some roundabout way. And there’s also a sort of magical realism influence where the atmosphere is just a bit odd and we have to listen to characters relay their dreams in exhausting detail.

I mean, even the chapter headings are like this:

World and the
Woman with a Mole
on the Back of
Her Neck

This isn’t a ‘fans of Murakami will love this novel’ situation, it’s just… why don’t you just read Murakami instead?

Anyway, even the tone of the novel is trying very hard for the elegant simplicity that Jay Rubin achieves in his English language translations of Murakami, but here it comes off as sophomoric rather than intentionally artful. Sentences like “The day my sister died, a part of me died, too” and “I was shocked to find her in my class. Was it fate?” and “As I was flipping through one of the books, a piece of paper fell out. Something told me it might be important” caused more than a few eye-rolls.

As for the story itself, there is nothing original or noteworthy here. It’s not really a mystery, or a thriller, or an introspective character study (that would be a stretch, since Ren has literally no personality), or the exploration of small-town Japanese culture that it claims to be. It’s just a collection of quirky characters telling Ren their stories while he sleeps with a bunch of different women (even though he has a girlfriend the entire time) who are inexplicably drawn to him, even though he has all the charisma of soggy cardboard. Here’s where Murakami’s influence really began to annoy me – I feel like there’s an undeniably masculine thread to all of his novels that Clarissa Goenawan was in a perfect position to subvert, as a female writer, but instead she gives us a thoroughly uninteresting male protagonist and tells us to root for him without giving us much reason to.

The atmosphere was nice and it held my attention the entire time, and I certainly didn’t hate this passionately enough to warrant a 1-star rating, but I’m just… not sure what I was supposed to take away from this book aside from the knowledge that Clarissa Goenawan is a massive Murakami fan.

15 thoughts on “book review: Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan

  1. I chose this one from BOTM too, and was somewhat disappointed. I haven’t read anything by Murakami yet though, and I think if I had seen this story as a repetition of another work I wouldn’t have rated it even as highly as did: 3 stars. From the reviews I’ve seen, I think I would’ve found more of what I’d been looking for in Rainbirds from the other March selection dealing with grief: the YA choice, The Astonishing Color of After. Better luck next time, I guess. Have you chosen your April selection yet?

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    • I’m usually not this bothered when the influence of another author is so apparent, but it was getting kind of ridiculous here. I mean, the final line is an almost verbatim copy of the final scene in Norwegian Wood, it was nuts. I’m not big on YA or magical realism so The Astonishing Color of After was an automatic no for me but now I keep hearing great things about it! We definitely lost the BOTM lottery this time around. The summary made Rainbirds sound incredible, I’m disappointed 😦

      I think I’m going to skip April – I’ve already read Circe, don’t like sci fi, and the thrillers just seem so generic… The memoir did tempt me momentarily but I’m not feeling terribly passionate about it, so I’m thinking it may just be a library read somewhere down the line. What about you?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yikes, that does sound frighteningly derivative. :/
        I’m definitely hoping for better results from the BOTM lottery in April– it’s my birthday month so I picked 3 just because. I do like sci-fi so I chose The Oracle Year, and I did go with the memoir, and I’m taking a chance on Our Kind of Cruelty. The Gillian Flynn recommendation on that one swayed me, but initially I had the same reaction to the thrillers so that’s the one that seems like the biggest gamble. I considered Circe, but in the end I made a shallow decision to read a copy with the regular shiny cover if I do pick it up. I liked your Circe review btw, it was the first one I saw that wasn’t just gushing senselessly about how beautiful the book is, which I found helpful.

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      • Happy birthday in advance in case I miss it! My birthday was last weekend, honestly I should have done something similar for March and treated myself but instead I just got stuck with Rainbirds, alas. I’ll be really curious to hear your thoughts on the memoir and Our Kind of Cruelty – that was the thriller that tempted me a bit more. If you say it’s great maybe I’ll think about getting it as an extra in the future.

        And thank you! I’ve been having similar difficulties with the reviews of Circe… I find gush-reviews particularly unhelpful anyway, and there seems to be more than a fair share of them for Circe from people who really loved The Song of Achilles. I did like Circe, but I hardly think it’s the literary masterpiece a lot of people seem to think it is… the lack of criticism so far is a bit frustrating.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, and happy birthday to you, too!

        I’m trying to work through my BOTM backlog this year (currently reading The Power), but with 3 books in April I’ll probably be working just to keep from falling farther behind. It probably would’ve been smarter to stick to one, but I have a book-buying weakness. Any excuse.
        Perhaps when Circe’s pub day rolls around it will find a wider range of reviewers– early reviews are sometimes the most gushy. It is frustrating though when reviewers aren’t critically engaging, especially for people trying to decide early whether or not to read the book. I was hoping for more descriptive reviews for Circe in particular because I know I don’t have as much of a handle on mythology as I used to; some solid opinions would be more helpful than talk about how beautiful the book is. (It does look really beautiful though. I usually go for the fastest/cheapest buying options, but I’ve been occasionally disappointed in missing out on some of the cool textures/effects that BOTM usually leaves off.)

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      • I’ve fallen 4 behind with BOTM (The Power, Dark Matter, Brighter Than Heaven, and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo), so I should probably use April to catch up… but I totally know what you mean about book buying. It’s just so addictive.

        I definitely agree that early reviews tend to be favorable ones. Especially with thrillers for whatever reason I tend to notice a pattern where the first wave of reviews rave about the book, the second wave are like ‘really, that was it??’ and the third wave are like ‘yeah it was pretty decent.’ It’s funny how we subconsciously build up our expectations and react to other reviews like that. Anyway, I’m (clearly) such an advocate of negative reviews, which I’m sure some people mistake for mean-spiritedness when really I just like to critically engage with whatever I’m reading. I’ll be curious to hear what you think of Circe for sure.

        And I know what you mean about the BOTM covers, their books are a good value but I want my gold foil!!

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      • I’m embarrassed to admit that I think I’m 8 books behind… and that’s a better number than I started the year with. I chose a lot of extras I didn’t really have time for in 2017. :/ I did read and love Dark Matter though! It’s definitely sci-fi, but I liked its plot twists. I think it’s a great thriller for non-science readers because a lack of scientific knowledge about dark matter makes the twists more surprising. I hope you’ll like that one (and the other three, of course! I wouldn’t hope for an unfavorable read, though I do agree that negative reviews make better reading material. Bring on the unpopular opinions)!

        And YES, that’s exactly the pattern! It’s so hard to decide which thrillers I’m actually going to like until I’m reading them. Reading any book early can be such a gamble– but I think that’s what makes BOTM so interesting; it’s hard to know what you’re going to get. Sometimes there’s a letdown (ahem, Rainbirds), but it’s not enough to keep me from playing the game. I hope you’ll have better luck with your next selection too! And pretty covers in the meantime… 🙂


  2. Great review! What a pity about the book, I’ve heard good things about it, but it’s always good to see a negative opinion before making up my mind! Thanks for being honest.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I totally agree… I get why some people prefer to only post positive reviews on their blogs, but I think negative reviews serve their purpose and it’s definitely not in my nature to lie or sugarcoat. But I do get why this book works for some people… if you pick it up I hope you like it more than I did!


  3. Interesting review. I’ve seen this book lying around the bookstores and I’ve always been intrigued by it. Though not a HUGE Murakami fan, I do like his writings, but this doesn’t seem like my cup of tea.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wouldn’t say I’m a huge Murakami fan either, though I do tend to like him… but his books are always really hit or miss for me. So this review was definitely not coming from a place of ‘how DARE SHE try to imitate Murakami!!!1!1!!’ as much as just…. WOW it sure is transparent just how much she’s borrowing from him rather than giving us anything unique. If you’re not a big Murakami fan I’d definitely skip it.

      Liked by 1 person

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