I had never heard of the Japanese phenomenon of locking oneself in a room until I became aware of Jeff Backhaus's debut novel, Hikikomori and the Rental Sister. I was fascinated with both the concept and the difference between American and Japanese attitudes toward becoming a hikikomori.
Instead of explaining it to you, I'll let you read the publisher's summary:
Thomas Tessler has cloistered himself in his bedroom and shut out the world for the past three years. His wife, Silke, lives right in the next room, but Thomas no longer shares his life with her, leaving his hideout only occasionally, in the wee hours of the night, to pick up food at the grocery store around the corner from their Manhattan apartment. Unable to cope with a devastating loss, Thomas has become isolated and withdrawn. He is hikikomori.Hikikomori is an introspective novel about how grief and guilt can lead some people into withdrawal and how love, patience, and understanding can, if not heal, at least provide the hope for a different future.
Desperate for one last chance to salvage their life together, Silke hires Megumi, a young Japanese immigrant attuned to the hikikomori phenomenon, to lure Thomas back into the world. Fleeing from her own shattering experience, Megumi has buried her pain in a fast life spent in nightclubs with nameless men. Now she will try to help Thomas and Silke as a "rental sister," as they are known in Japan. At first Thomas remains steadfast and sequestered, but as he grows to trust Megumi, a deepening and sensual relationship unfolds.
Hikikomori and the Rental Sister is a taut novel that packs a big philosophical punch. In this revelatory and provocative debut, Jeff Backhaus asks, What are the risks of intimacy? Can another woman ever lead a husband back to his wife? And what must we surrender for love? Hikikomori and the Rental Sister pierces the emotional walls of grief and delves into the power of human connection to break through to the world waiting outside.
One of the main themes of the novel is between-ness, of being stuck in a limbo, partially of one's own making. Although both Thomas and Silke are clearly unable to move past their shared tragedy, it's Megumi who most embodies the idea of being neither here nor there. And it's this quality of being outside the usual categories that makes her the perfect catalyst for change.
Backhuas's writing is careful and sparse, capturing a Japanese style in an American voice. I wanted to say more about the prose, but that one sentence sums up my thoughts. Here's an example that includes no spoilers:
Go away, girl. Be someone else's sister.I was hooked from the first chapter, and read the novel in one sitting.
But she stays at the closed door and talks. I unfocus my ears and hear only sounds, sweet sounds like a bird, all rhythm and cadence, sounds but no meaning, just up and down like notes on a page. (p. 17)
Book clubs may want to consider Hikikomori and the Rental Sister. There is certainly a lot to discuss, starting with the questions asked in the publisher's summary.
For more on the hikikomori phenomenon, read "Shutting Themselves In," published in the New York Times a few years ago. Get to know Jeff Bakhous by visiting his website, following him on Twitter, or liking him on Facebook.
Algonquin Books is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, please read Executive Editor Chuck Adams's introductory letter, posted here on January 7, 2011. Don't forget to follow Algonquin on Twitter and Facebook and read their blog (where you can sign up for the Algonquin newsletter).
Buy Hikikomori and the Rental Sister at an indie or at a bookstore near you. (Link leads to an affiliate program.)
Published by Workman / Algonquin Books 2013
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