Intricate study of a troubled soul

FICTION

THE PERFECT WORLD OF MIWAKO SUMIDA

By Clarissa Goenawan Soho Press/ Paperback/ 278 pages/ Books Kinokuniya/ Available at bit.ly/KinoTPWMS/3 stars

The world of Miwako Sumida is anything but perfect in this transnational novel set in Japan and written by Indonesia-born Singaporean writer Clarissa Goenawan.

The atmospheric novel is about a secretive, troubled character who takes her own life. It follows her friends as they try to make sense of her death.

Goenawan has visited Japan only once in her life, but this is her second book set in the country after her first, the award-winning Rainbirds (2018).

The writer, whose third novel will also reportedly be set in the Land of the Rising Sun, grew up on a diet of Japanese culture and counts Haruki Murakami and Keigo Higashino among her favourite authors.

Her latest book sets off on a melancholic tragic tone right off the bat, when the reader learns that the titular character has hanged herself.

Twenty is the age when children officially become adults in Japan, but it is also when Miwako loses the battle with her inner demons and ends her life.

The reader follows two of Miwako’s closest friends at Waseda University – Ryusei Yanagi, who harbours unrequited feelings for Miwako; and Chie Ohno, Miwako’s best friend, who appears to be a social butterfly – on their journey to understand why she killed herself.

The story is told, including through flashbacks to happier times, from three perspectives: Ryusei’s, Chie’s and that of Ryusei’s elder sister Fumi, a painter who takes Miwako in as an apprentice at her art studio.

Goenawan’s prose is transportive in its directness and evocative in its simplicity.

In Miwako, she has succeeded in an intricate character study of a perturbed soul.

One day, Miwako leaves Tokyo for the fictional remote mountainous town of Kitsuyama, where she kills herself.

Its quiet setting of “dense trees so close together they almost blocked out the sun” and an “endless wave of trees” brings to mind the real-life Aokigahara forest on the north-western flank of Mount Fuji, also dubbed the Suicide Forest.

Ryusei and Chie follow her, hoping to get answers – only to find more questions.

“I put up the wall between us. I lied to you, pretending everything was okay. I thought what I needed was time, but what I really needed was courage,” Miwako writes in her farewell letter to Ryusei. “I’m sorry for everything I could have done but didn’t.”

Not everybody will find this novel easy to stomach, as it tackles dark themes such as sexual assault and later takes an otherworldly turn that feels necessary only to help tie up loose ends.

It is puzzling why Goenawan set the story in 1989, save for the fact that it was a time when electronic devices were uncommon and there was still a heavy reliance on penned letters.

While the story reads as if it could be set in the present day, The Perfect World Of Miwako Sumida is nevertheless an immersive, haunting tale and a clarion call for urgent intervention to help society’s troubled youth.

f you like this, read: The Memory Eaters by Janice Tay (2017, Straits Times Press, $19.80, available at stbooks.sg/products/the-memory-eaters). Also set in Japan by a Singaporean writer, Tay, who lives in Kyoto, evokes feudal-era Japan with samurais and power-hungry warlords in a story where fictional ageless creatures named kuyin feed on their victims’ memories.

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