Book Review

The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida by Clarissa Goenawan

A bewitching novel set in contemporary Japan about the mysterious suicide of a young woman.

Miwako Sumida is dead.

Now those closest to her try to piece together the fragments of her life. Ryusei, who has always loved her, follows Miwako’s trail to a remote Japanese village. Chie, Miwako’s best friend, was the only person to know her true identity – but is now the time to reveal it? Meanwhile, Fumi, Ryusei’s sister, is harbouring her own haunting secret.

Together, they realise that the young woman they thought they knew had more going on behind her seemingly perfect façade than they could ever have dreamed.

The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida is a tender, character driven novel that looks at how we don’t always know what’s going on in the hearts and minds of those closest to us.  Miwako Sumida is a university student in Tokyo who takes her own life (not a spoiler, it’s mentioned on the very first page).  We then see three people who were close to her – or so they thought – look back at their own lives and their interactions with Miwako as they struggle to come to terms with their grief and Miwako’s absence. 

The first part is narrated by Ryusei (Ryu) a fellow student who falls in love with Miwako, but whose advances are rejected as Miwako who would rather remain friends than risk ruining their friendship for a romance that she doesn’t believe will go anywhere.  Of the three characters whose viewpoints are explored, Ryu seems to be hit the hardest, partly due to his feelings for Miwako, but also because she had something that she wanted to tell him, but never did.  It’s torturous for him, and I felt a huge amount of sympathy for Ryu.  I enjoyed discovering more about their friendship as Ryu shares memories of their shared past, and it seems a huge shame to me that Miwako didn’t want to explore a more romantic relationship with Ryu – I feel that it would have worked brilliantly, although we do find out more about Miwako’s rationale for turning Ryu down as the novel progresses.  Through Ryu’s eyes, we see an idealised version of Miwako – someone who was perhaps a little unusual and not quite like those around her, but who appears near perfect through Ryu’s rose-tinted glasses. 

The second perspective is that of Chie, one of Miwako’s closest friends.  Perhaps because Chie is a friend and not someone who is in love with Miwako, we get a slightly more realistic portrait of her character in this section, and we begin to understand that neither she nor her life was quite as perfect as Ryu would have the reader believe.  Despite coming across as a little frivolous, it’s clear that Chie knows more about Miwako’s life than Ryu ever did yet is determined to remain loyal to her friend until the end. She doesn’t know everything, but some of the questions that the reader may have about Miwako’s behaviour are explained through this second section of the novel, although some questions do remain.  This section of the novel sees Ryu and Chie team up and venture to a remote part of Japan where Miwako killed herself.  Despite the difficulties in their journey, there’s a sense of closure for these two characters who might never fully understand Miwako’s actions, but who can at least remember her for the friend that she was. 

The final part of the novel is told from the perspective of Fumi – Ryu’s sister who employed both Ryu and Miwako part time around their studies.  Fumi is older than Ryu and Chie, and of the three was the one that I felt the most affection for.  She hasn’t had an easy life, being left to take responsibility for Ryu after their parents died, and for other reasons that are best left to the reader to discover.  I will say that this final section of the novel takes a slightly different approach to the first two, and while I enjoyed it, I expect that some readers may not be entirely taken with this element of the novel. Through Fumi’s narrative, Miwako’s secrets are finally laid bare and while the reader has probably deduced her motives by this point, it does help to bring the novel to a satisfying close as the reader can, at last, understand what she had kept hidden from those around her. 

The structure of The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida is deceptively simple, but I really enjoyed the way in which Miwako’s secrets are gradually revealed to the reader as each section challenges the views and opinions formed from the preceding testimony to give a rounded view of her character and her supposedly perfect world.   There are elements to the narrative that don’t make for entirely pleasant reading, and yet I felt that these aspects were handled with the utmost sensitivity, occurring off page and only included to enhance the narrative without becoming sensationalist.  This is an interesting and original novel, I’m looking forward to exploring more from this author.   

The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida is published by Scribe and is available in paperback and eBook formats.


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