GABY RUSLI WRITES – The world is so much more than black and white, for there are always things unbeknown to us— secrets. A person is not who you know they are unless you know what they hide from the world.
In the fictional Japanese town of Akakawa, Watersong (2022) by Clarissa Goenawan tells the story of Shouji Arai, an “ear prostitute.” Arai is tasked with listening to the confessions and stories made (no matter how bizarre) by the town’s elite few with no judgments, commentary, or the utmost discretion. Arai erroneously formed an emotional bond with a client, leading him to cross influential people, be chased away from Akakawa, and be separated from his partner, Youko Sasaki. He remembers a fortune told much earlier in his life in which he will encounter three women with water in their names, one of which will result in death.
Author Clarissa Goenawan was born in Surabaya, Indonesia, before permanently relocating to Singapore at sixteen. She is known for Rainbirds (2018) and The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida (2020). She won the Bath Novel Award for her novel Rainbirds. Goenawan dreamed of being a writer but initially abandoned her aspirations because she assumed writing was unrealistic. She worked briefly in the banking industry before realizing writing was her true passion. She has been writing ever since.
The continuity and suspense in Goenawan’s writing transport her readers into an intermediary space wedged between reality and unreality— much like the fogginess that befalls Goenawan’s protagonist throughout the novel. Shouji is forced to completely disappear and leave everyone behind to stay alive. Shouji’s exile causes Shouji to constantly relive every second of his old life. He lives through the motions, completely detached and lethargic, closing himself off from anything remotely new. He starts associating his old life with his girlfriend Youko, desperately clinging to the idea of finding her as the solution to end his suffering. Shouji’s erratic yet sluggish mental state has left Goenawan’s readers temporarily unable to function in the real world.
Much later in the book, Shouji discovered a healthy Youko residing on the fictional island of Kisejima. Shouji sought to rekindle their so-called great romance, while Youko sought to close the book on their relationship and find closure through one last intimate moment. The reader quickly realizes that they never knew much about each other, nor did they have the yearning to discover each other’s true personalities. So why fight for a mediocre relationship? Shouji’s sense of reality may have been distorted all along.
To those rooting for Shouji to find his much-anticipated clarity, Watersong may be closer to a flop. However, to lovers of quality writing, Goenawan deserves your consideration as she was able to redefine the mystery genre, demonstrating that it is more than just a puzzle to solve but an unpredictable, complex array of humanness. Watersong is a light read that grows heavier at every turn of the page, making you question all the right things but leaving them unanswered.
Book Reviewer, Gaby Rusli, is an International Relations graduate who is passionate about Indonesian and Southeast Asian literature.
Edited by book review editor-in-chief, Ella Kelleher.