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Hikikomori and the Rental Sister: A Novel Hardcover – January 8, 2013


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, January 2013: The Japanese term hikikomori is hard to track down in American dictionaries: It means a complete withdrawal from society, often following an acute trauma. You wouldn’t think a novel about this alienating concept would inspire empathy, but Jeff Backhaus’s intimate and moving portrait of a man hiding away from the world will wholly suck you in. After the death of his young son in a careless accident, Thomas disappears into his bedroom for three years. Desperate to bring him back, his wife hires Megumi, a young Japanese woman, to serve as a "rental sister," hoping that her personal experience with Thomas's affliction will help them establish a bond. The relationship that unfolds between Thomas and Megumi is extraordinary, rendered with quiet beauty, anger, and a deep sensuality. It’s nearly impossible to believe that this heartbreaking novel is a debut--we should all keep a selfish eye on Jeff Backhaus, lest he retreat too far into his own head and stop sharing his talent with the rest of us. --Mia Lipman

From Booklist

*Starred Review* In a mesmerizing debut at once sorrowful, intimate, and optimistic, Backhaus forges an unlikely friendship between two people battling loss. For the three years since a mysterious tragedy ended his son’s life, embittered Thomas Tessler has lived in isolation inside his Manhattan apartment bedroom. Shades drawn, door bolted, photographs turned down, Thomas hardly speaks to his wife, Silke, and only sees her when peeking into her room before slipping out in the middle of the night to buy canned or frozen dinners and magazines. Silke patiently pleads with Thomas to come out, preparing him meals before leaving for work, but she’s finally had enough. In a desperate attempt to lure her husband from his gloomy silence, she hires a so-called rental sister named Megumi to coax him. A Japanese immigrant fleeing her past, Megumi tries connecting with Thomas through closed doors, sharing seductive stories of her past and the years her brother also shut himself in his room. What ensues is the passionate relationship of two loners grappling with the circumstances that unite people or tear them apart. Told in crisp and lyrical prose and a nontraditional narrative that shifts between first- and third-person, Backhaus’ novel is courageous and spare, an enthralling success. --Jonathan Fullmer
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books; 1st Edition, 1st Printing edition (January 8, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1616201371
  • ISBN-13: 978-1616201371
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.9 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (79 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,042,199 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jeff Backhaus has been a cook, an art director, and a professional pilot. He has lived and worked in Korea, and now lives in New York.

Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

52 of 54 people found the following review helpful By Amelia Gremelspacher TOP 500 REVIEWER on January 8, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Hikikomon and the rental Sister explores a fascinating cultural phenomenon of hikikomori. But this book takes the subject to one that has always fascinated me, what of the women, it is usually women, who patiently or not so patiently, maintain the lives of those who have left the world? Found to be unique to Japan, a million young people, mostly male, withdraw from the world. Most do not leave their rooms. Some will roam only at night. Many live in their bedrooms for years. Broken by their values at odds with their worlds, they can find no purchase outside their rooms.

Yet, this hikikomori is American, and he lives in New York City. Thomas is married and his wife, Silke, lives in despair. He has locked himself away from her and she lives in their dead son's bedroom. Their son has died, breaking the parade of father to father, and forcing a fracture in time. . Silke elects to bring in Megumi, "rental sister" seeking to help her husband using a traditional cure. ,Megumi is an intriguing woman, wrapped in layers like silk. And Silke herself is a woman with a full range of emotions in her armory to save her world. " And not that he's perfect, but I just can't abandon him, not until I know who's in there." Both women can see the "gravity", the "heaviness" within Thomas. There is much that is good, much that he can no longer see. This trio in its permutations serves both as themselves and as metaphors of other lives.

The language is lyrical. It resists the easy temptation to dip to pathos. Thomas does not try to rationalize his behavior. He seeks no forgiveness from us. Within this culturally mixed metaphor, we explore the issues of life as it continues despite our best efforts. The characters evoke pockets of ourselves. The relationships are nuanced and luminous. The plot isnreplete within itself. This book is well chosen for one of the best of this month. I had anticipated its publication, and it did not let me down.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Kaye on January 15, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The book is very well written and a pleasure to read with well developed and interesting characters. There isn't much I can add to the wonderful review by Amelia Gremelspacher. The book is an interesting look at a fascinating phenomenon. A fast read, you won't be disappointed. I highly recommend.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful By John Borghi on February 11, 2013
Format: Audio CD
This is a novel about a very intimate and very private sort of conflict. The main character, and sometimes narrator, Tom has retreated into his room following a tragedy- his relationship with his wife is strained to the point that she is willing to try anything to get him to rejoin the rest of his life. Enter Megumi, whose history allows her a unique perspective on what has happened to Tom and how to help him.

This is also a relationship with a surprising lack of conflict. For a novel containing so many painful elements, almost none of it comes through on the page. We know that Tom has retreated into himself because he, very explicitly, says so in his periodic narration. We understand the reasons for Megumi's feelings because she, very explicitly, says them aloud to Tom. The moments of drama that due occur, most notably the fire, are tremendously unearned and generally have no consequence than to move the plot forward.

Overall, Hikkomori and the Rental Sister is mostly just disappointing. There is the potential for interesting story telling here, the central conflict certainly has enough of the elements. But the novel gets bogged down in overly florid prose and carefully constructed happy endings to leave a lasting impression. In the end, I was more interested in the noodles Megumi spent seemingly ever page describing than Tom and his retreat.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Pat on January 24, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Jeff Backhaus has crafted a unique story around "hikikomori," the Japanese word for someone who completely withdraws from the world by isolating himself physically and emotionally. The world of Thomas and Silke Tessler changed forever when their only child was hit and killed by a car while Thomas was caring for him. Thomas' subsequent guilt and grief resulted in a self-imposed exile in a dead-bolted room within their home. Megumi, a young Japanese immigrant dealing with her own challenges, is the "rental sister" who is hired by Silke to bring Thomas "back to life."

This debut novel requires a certain suspension of disbelief; at some point after several years, Thomas' grief becomes self indulgent at best, if not indicative of a psychosis. There is also an episode with a neighbor that doesn't seem to add to our knowledge of the situation or the characters. That said, I will read any book that Algonquin publishes due to the superlative quality of their fiction. I have been a fan of Algonquin books since they were published in a small, distinctive form. Jeff Backhaus is an author to watch and Algonquin is a publisher to treasure.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Sometimes when we feel most alone, we don't realize that there are others who feel the same exact way, perhaps for different reasons or manifested differently.

It has been three years since Thomas Tessler has truly faced the world. Wracked with grief and immense guilt following the tragic death of his young son, Thomas has locked himself in his bedroom, only leaving to shop for groceries at a convenience store in the middle of the night. While he lives in the same apartment as his wife, Silke, he never speaks to her, never acknowledges her many efforts to cook him meals, bring him things, or simply let her know how he is feeling. He is hikikomori, the Japanese word for a person who withdraws, a total social recluse.

Desperate to get her husband back, Silke hires Megumi, a young Japanese woman who knows the hikikomori phenomenon all too well, as it consumed her brother's life back in Japan. Reluctantly, Megumi agrees to work as a "rental sister" for Thomas and Silke, to try and encourage Thomas to come back into the real world again. Megumi's life is fairly unsatisfying, filled with nights spent drinking in bars with her friends, sleeping with random men to try and help her feel something. As she tries to get Thomas to acknowledge her, to speak to her, she finds herself drawn to him in inexplicable ways as he helps fill the emotional void her brother left behind.

Megumi and Thomas' relationship progresses, and threatens to shut Silke out entirely. But Thomas doesn't know exactly what he wants. Can a person who has allowed himself to be so isolated from people, from feelings for so long actually be equipped to feel again, to communicate? This is a fascinating book about how immobilizing grief and loneliness are, yet how comforting isolation can be.
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