Review: The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida by Clarissa Goenawan

The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida by Clarissa Goenawan

Categories: Mystery, Magical Realism

First Publication Date: March 10, 2020

I received an advance copy via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Synopsis: University sophomore Miwako Sumida has hanged herself, leaving those closest to her reeling. In the months before her suicide, she was hiding away in a remote mountainside village, but what, or whom, was she running from?

Ryusei, a fellow student at Waseda who harbored unrequited feelings for Miwako, begs her best friend Chie to bring him to the remote village where she spent her final days. While they are away, his older sister, Fumi, who took Miwako on as an apprentice in her art studio, receives an unexpected guest at her apartment in Tokyo, distracting her from her fear that Miwako’s death may ruin what is left of her brother’s life.

I was going to do a mini-review on this book but turns out I had pleanty to say. Clarissa Goenawan has been on my radar since Rainbirds, which for some reason I haven’t picked up yet. The plot reminds me a bit of Little Gods by Meng Jin, in which the main character has died and we get to know her through the eyes of the people who used to be close to her – and I suspect reading Little Gods just a few days before this made for an unfair comparison and hindered my enjoyment of Miwako Sumida.

I found the writing a bit dry and distanced, the dialogue unconvincing and the characters themselves did not shine enough to provoke the emotional punch I would expect from a story as dark and heartbreaking as this one. The pacing was also a bit off and I was supremely bored at times and then hooked again.

With three narrators and each one focusing on their own lives plus how they were connected to Miwako and the things she kept secret, the story felt a bit too crowded. One of the main characters, Fumi, is a trans woman, and I am not so sure about the treatment of the main trans character Fumi, her representation left me feeling like it could’ve been done in a better way (for example, I saw no reason to deadname her, or why her brother felt the need to “unburden” himself on the girl he liked by telling her this “secret”). I think there was an attempt to give depth and make this a multilayered, poignant story by having so many narrators, but the result is a rambling story that took too long.

I was not convinced by the magical realism in the story either. [Mild Spoiler] The curse runs from father to son, and I felt that this was not challenged or questioned at all. Fumi is not the eldest son, and so either the “curse” is passed genetically and thus makes no sense only the eldest would have it, or it’s passed magically and then makes no sense Fumi would have it. Either way, I found it unsatisfactory. [End of Mild Spoiler]

Still, this was an intriguing read and I appreciate what the author did in terms of twists and making the reader see how easily we misread others and how little we know. The mystery was definitely well-done and I appreciate that the author attempted to tackle so many difficult topics – I think the writing and the choice of narrators will work for some readers.

TW: Suicide, transphobia, bullying, sexual abuse, death of parents.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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