Books

Clarissa Goenawan
The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida

Clarissa Goenawan’s The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida is written like a homage to Haruki Murakami. At the heart of the story lies a dead woman, the titular character whose death – as it’s revealed from the get-go – occurred under mysterious circumstances, which her friend Ryusei Yanagi is trying to comprehend. There are bright, white moons and watercolour cats, and an actual cat named Tama. Strange dreams act as prophecy.

But this is Murakami without the male gaze – a feminist Murakami, perhaps. Ryusei searches for enthusiastic consent before having sex with Miwako. A subplot explores the limits of gendered socialisation, and there is a moral about the harmful effects of victim-blaming.

In a novel of three parts, told through the perspectives of Ryusei, Miwako’s best friend Chie and Ryusei’s sister Fumi, Goenawan crafts a Daedalian tale that is both ghost story and thriller. The fragmented narrative jumps through time, unfolding first through Ryusei’s recollection of the past, juxtaposed with Miwako’s letters after she unexpectedly leaves Tokyo. An ethereal quality pervades much of the book, particularly when Chie and Ryusei team up in the second act to travel to the rural village where Miwako meets her death. And the title itself establishes the book’s message: beneath what looks like someone’s “perfect” world, what kind(s) of destructive secrets threaten to prevail?

It is ironic, then, that there are times when the novel’s ambition overwhelms the narrative. Fumi’s story in the third act reads as an overplayed character development that feels too neat, an attempt to include an oft-elided perspective – in this case, a trans woman – that doesn’t advance the story, serving instead to make a statement about the author’s political inclinations. The question remains: does inserting a marginalised character make a story more “progressive”? It is, after all, easy to impute arbitrary characterisations without giving them the necessary verisimilitude.

But Goenawan’s effort at crafting a palpable feminist allegory is noteworthy. An engrossing tale clearly influenced by Japanese women writers such as Risa Wataya and Banana Yoshimoto, The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida is about the crushing weight of secrets and how the long arm of history returns to haunt a person. In this novel, young women straitjacketed by the standards of mainstream society demand: give us a closer look.

Cher Tan

Scribe, 288pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 7, 2020 as "Clarissa Goenawan, The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida".

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Reviewer: Cher Tan