Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
In one of the marketing quotes on its cover, The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida is described as “an elegantly cryptic, poetically plotted Murakami-esque whydunit.” Thematically Clarissa Goenawan’s second novel brings to mind Norwegian Wood — it’s set part in Tokyo, part in a remote village in the mountains, and centres around students, their troubled loves and a suicide — but to compare it to Murakami’s work does justice to neither author.
Goenawan is wronged on a level of principles: in the West, Murakami is very much the standard for Japanese literature and literature set in Japan (Goenawan is an Indonesian-born Singaporean and writes in English). To constantly evoke Murakami is like comparing every single European novel to Normal People because that is what happens to be big at the moment. On the flipside, a comparison to The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida does no justice to Murakami, because this is a far cry from the nuance, carefully crafted characters and seamless combination of the mundane and the otherworldly that make up the essence of what ‘Murakami-esque’ is.
The eponymous character is dead from the outset; more of an outsider than an insider, Miwako isn’t afraid to speak her mind and go her own way and remains something of an enigma to those closest to her. Her story is narrated through these friends, trying to piece together what led her to take her own life. There is Ryusei, a fellow student who is desperately in love with Miwako, overly protective of his sister Fumi and generally wondering about life; Chie, a friend from high school with her own outsider complex and alter ego as a writer of fictional diary entries for a popular zine; and Fumi, Ruysei’s sister, grappling with bringing up her younger brother after they are orphaned, her transgender identity and an otherworldly curse.
If that sounds like there is a lot going on, there is, and it’s all squeezed into under 300 pages. Just as you think you are getting to know one of the narrators, the story screeches to a halt and jumps to someone else’s. It’s as if a picture that should be a thousand-piece puzzle is chopped up into only a hundred. The result is one of starts and stops, with some storylines desperately super-glued into the whole. This happens especially towards the end, when in a surprise turn that isn’t really relevant to anything and could belong to a different novel altogether, Fumi turns out to be able to communicate with wandering spirits. It’s a curious attempt of introducing magical realism, or interweaving the everyday and spiritual (dare I say, in a Murakami-esque way), that cannot but fail in the very tiny amount of breathing space it is granted.
The abruptness is also reflected in Goewanan’s prose. There is a lot of very obvious tension building and heavy hinting at Big Secrets That Will Be Revealed: “She had no idea how close she was to the truth about Fumi-nee” is just one such example. Instead of ‘Gosh, what could it be?’, it makes you yearn for even a hint of subtlety.
In Goenawan’s defence, though, the dialogue works, and luckily the whole is very dialogue-driven. This makes the novel easy reading, the sort of thing you might take on a holiday and not worry about leaving it behind,, even if its themes are many shades darker. The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida does touch upon some interesting themes: it reveals glimpses of the social status of transgender people in Japan (which Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs, another Tokyo novel out this autumn, touches upon as well) and looks at the intersection of modern city lives and rural Japan. It’s just shame that Goenawan didn’t take the time to dwell into these themes, or another restricted set, but took her characters in several directions too many.
Anna is a bookworm, student linguist and journalist.
Clarissa Goenawan, The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida (Scribe, 2020). 978-1913348328, 288pp.,paperback.
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