Summer Bird Blue is the second novel by Akemi Dawn Bowman. She previously wrote Starfish, which is one of my favourite novels about anxiety and complex family dynamics. I was kindly given an ARC of this novel through Netgalley. All views are my own.
Rumi Seto spends a lot of time worrying she doesn’t have the answers to everything. What to eat, where to go, whom to love. But there is one thing she is absolutely sure of—she wants to spend the rest of her life writing music with her younger sister, Lea.
Then Lea dies in a car accident, and her mother sends her away to live with her aunt in Hawaii while she deals with her own grief. Now thousands of miles from home, Rumi struggles to navigate the loss of her sister, being abandoned by her mother, and the absence of music in her life. With the help of the “boys next door”—a teenage surfer named Kai, who smiles too much and doesn’t take anything seriously, and an eighty-year-old named George Watanabe, who succumbed to his own grief years ago—Rumi attempts to find her way back to her music, to write the song she and Lea never had the chance to finish.
Trigger warnings: car accident, sibling death, grief, panic attacks, drowning (I think I might have forgotten some though – I didn’t take notes whilst reading, sorry)
WOOOOOOW. Okay. Much like Starfish before it, Summer Bird Blue is a really heavy book. As you can tell from the blurb, it is all about the death of a very close sister, and the way that Rumi starts to deal with the grieving process. It wasn’t an easy read.
Let’s start with Rumi herself. She is not a likeable character. She is acerbic and often doesn’t think about others. She is the definition of prickly, and lashes out at people who try to get too close. I definitely can see why some reviewers might have had a problem with that, but I personally thought she was very refreshing. Not everyone is easy to like – some people are more closed-off than others. As well, it’s important to keep in mind that she is grieving. While that doesn’t excuse some of her behaviour, I think it goes a long way to explaining it. I personally thought that she was a very interesting and complex character.
I was really impressed by the huge range of diverse characters in the book as well. Rumi herself is Japanese, Hawaiian, and white, and a lot of the characters are Hawaiian, Japanese, Korean, Samoan, Filipino, and black. Many of the characters, including her aunt and the next-door neighbours, also speak a version of Hawaiian pidgin English, which apparently the author learned from her father. I think this would work really well on audio, so maybe check that out.
Throughout the book Rumi is also questioning her sexuality – she thinks a lot about whether she might be asexual and/or aromantic. The word ‘asexual’ is actually used on-page!! And while I am neither asexual or aromantic, I definitely thought that the representation of questioning was really accurate. It reminded me of being in that liminal space of not knowing quite what label fits best – if any!
“I don’t want to hold hands, or flirt, or… kiss. And I don’t feel like I’m somehow less whole because I don’t want to date.”
I do think that the pacing of the book could have been improved a bit. In many (if not all) of the chapters there are flashbacks, which sometimes interrupted the flow of the main plot. However, I do understand why they were there, as they gave really great insights into what Rumi and Lea’s relationship was like. It’s also good to keep in mind that this is very much a character-focused novel rather than a plot-focused one. I really like that, but others might find it a bit slow.
Overall? Akemi Dawn Bowman did it again. I am actually obsessed with the complex characters and relationships that she creates, and I cannot wait to see what she will be writing next!!