Consequently, nobody’s life is perfect. Nobody’s world is perfect. And so one might correctly conclude upon first glance that The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida is a book title that absolutely drips with irony.
Miwako Sumida herself certainly isn’t perfect. She is introduced as a university student with a very small circle of friends and very little interest in expanding it. She is extremely blunt and insightful—a recipe for social disaster. She keeps to herself, collects romance novels, and is dead before the prologue ends. Miwako Sumida has committed suicide, and the people closest to her can’t fathom why.
Ryusei is a fellow student at Waseda University, and he has fallen in love with Miwako. His recollections of the important moments that he spent with her intersperse his present-day dealings with the fallout of Miwako’s suicide.
Chie is Miwako’s best friend. At Ryusei’s urging, she accompanies him to an isolated mountaintop village where Miwako had been staying in the weeks leading up to her death. In her stories, she recounts her experiences of being an unpopular high school student and of finding a kindred spirit in Miwako.
Fumi is Ryusei’s older sister and Miwako’s part-time employer. She is left alone when her brother goes off to the mountains with Chie. She remembers events from a very strange childhood, even as current circumstances pull her into a reality that is stranger still.
Miwako Sumida is richer for all of these side stories. They flesh out the main characters and make them relatable and believable. This is something that unfortunately can’t be said for Miwako herself. The titular character is a bit too eccentric and a bit too mysterious and tortured to be convincing, especially when surrounded by her more sympathetic and interesting acquaintances. The tragedy surrounding her death kicks off the plot, but it works best as a vehicle to enable the telling of smaller, more engaging stories about her friends. There is a big reveal towards the end, but like Miwako, it’s a bit too familiar in an unsatisfying way.
It’s not going to be a shocking revelation for any reader that Miwako Sumida’s world was actually not perfect at all. In fact, perhaps a point could be made: perfect is uninteresting. The story becomes more intriguing the farther it gets. Ryusei’s sweet, sterile love story leads into Chie’s bittersweet childhood memories, and by the time the story turns its focus on Fumi’s messy, messy life, it finally pulls out the stops. In the final sprint to the epilogue, it feels like anything can happen. That’s when the story is at its finest.
Getting to the interesting parts can take a while, but all of it is a pleasure to read. Clarissa Goenawan narrates her stories with effortless and descriptive prose. Her writing can make the simplest moments burst to life with surprisingly few words. Miwako might not be so captivating as a character, but the book itself is well-written and difficult to put down.
The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida shares some similarities with Goenawan’s previous novel Rainbirds. Both are mysteries dealing with young women who died unexpectedly. Both are set in pre-internet era Japan. Both hide a wealth of smaller, shorter stories that may or may not directly relate to the main plot. However, where Rainbirds looks outwards to its oddball secondary characters for its stories, Miwako Sumida turns inwards to the memories and secrets that its characters keep. The stories are more intimate and less varied than in Rainbirds, but they are just as fantastic.
Read it for those little stories, and just don’t be disappointed if the mystery goes exactly where you think it was going. The experience is still worth the ride. Highly recommended.
The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida will soon be available at Fully Booked. Email us to reserve a copy in advance.
Jed is one of the co-founders of Popsicle Games, a game development studio based in the Philippines. He has worked as an animator, web designer, and college instructor, but he continues to dream of writing for a living. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @jrevita.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]