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51 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "I have locked out the world."
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...
Published 19 months ago by Amelia Gremelspacher

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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars John B.
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...
Published 18 months ago by John Borghi


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51 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "I have locked out the world.", January 8, 2013
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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
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent!, January 15, 2013
By 
Kaye (Napa, California, United States) - See all my reviews
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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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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars John B., February 11, 2013
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John Borghi (Natick, MA United States) - See all my reviews
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
4.0 out of 5 stars Sometimes when we feel most alone, we don't realize that others are feeling the exact same way..., January 29, 2013
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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. It's a story about trying to move on when you don't want to let go of your hurt and guilt, and how sometimes it takes a person who knows completely how you feel to help you take tentative steps toward moving on.

"No matter how big we try to make our world, in the end it's just ourselves. We follow ourselves around everywhere."

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this book as the story unfolded. This book is as much about Megumi as it is about Thomas, and she is a much more complex and complicated character than he is, yet that complexity left me somewhat uncertain about whether she was a sympathetic character or someone to pity or dislike. But Jeff Backhaus did a very good job of gradually peeling back the layers of her personality, so you're not quite sure how you want the story to resolve itself. Much as in the book itself, I felt Silke was more in the background, so it was difficult to understand some of her actions and motivations.

This is a beautifully written meditation on grief, loneliness, and the nourishment of companionship. While the story engages you throughout, it's not always as compelling as it should be, but Backhaus keeps you wondering what will become of his characters. Unique, sometimes spare, but lyrical.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lyrical prose, January 24, 2013
By 
Pat (Atlanta, GA United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Hikikomori and the Rental Sister: A Novel (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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars There Is A Season For Mourning, January 25, 2013
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Grapes (Southeast USA) - See all my reviews
Thomas and his wife, Silke, have lived through a family tragedy no one wants to ever go through in life. Thomas and Silke's son dies at an early age while crossing the street. Silke and Thomas deal with the painful loss in different ways. Silke strives to go on with a normal life while Thomas totally withdraws to a room in their house. He only makes appearances at night to pick up something needed from the store. He is the only one in the room so he isn't making conversation with anyone. His only conversation happens when his wife comes to his door. He doesn't let her inside the room. He mumbles back to her through the door. The novel is about loss and recovery. The novel is beautifully written. I often thought of a Japanese garden which I think would be totally peaceful. Quiet enough for people to reach inside of themselves and find good and bad character treasures.

Silke is just as soft as her name. She loves Thomas and gives him the space he needs to deal with his sadness. He blames himself for the death of their son. She make one big attempt to help him get out of the room and back to normalcy. She hires a Japanese and Korean lady who will try and reach Thomas. This means make him open the door and communicate his sorrows to another person. Rental Sister's name is Megumi. She also isn't pushy. Making me think the author JEFF BACKHAUS might be making the point that moving from emotional pain to acceptance of a horrible incident can never be rushed or agressively forced upon the person who is dealing with a monumental tragedy. So all the characters or most of the main characters seem to display this quiet spirit wanting the person to heal but not pushing their healing upon them.

I waited anxiously to see whether Thomas would ever open the door to Megumi, and if he did open the door, what would happen next? What in the world would Megumi say to this sad man? Ultimately without telling the whole novel I discovered why Megumi is the perfect person to help Thomas. Throughout the novel, the author explains the Japanese and Korean culture. For example, one day Megumi says to Thomas "In America they say that birds sing....But in Korea they say that birds cry. Do yo know why?"

The fact that Thomas has always kept a journal titled "My life through scars" really fascinated me. I had never heard of anyone keeping such a personal book. In this book he had written and described all of his physical scars. I couldn't help but think about our soldiers overseas. If they had the chance to write about a battle, would it help to write about the lost arm or the horrible bruise on the face? I think this is a wonderful idea for people who live through fires and car crashes. Even little children might find some comfort in writing about a bloody knee or a broken arm or how it felt to fall from their Tree house. I remember falling off my green tricycle. I had a huge bloody injury on my knee. When it scabbed over it was twice as ugly. Plus, I lost my privledge to ride fast from the top of the hill and try to make a turn in a split second before just riding out in to the street. What if I had written down my feelings about that fall. It certainly traumatized my parents and me.

In Hikikomori and the Rental Sister, Jeff Backhaus gave me so much to run over in my mind. Here is another one of his thoughts. "A heart can love twice. Two strangers in an earthquake. Trapped, they share the same black, dusty space. They nourish each..." I closed the novel thinking Jeff Backhaus must be an amazing speaker. To hear him speak the thoughts he wrote in the novel would feel like a gift to me. Listen to what Thomas says about his withdrawal from the world.

"It never felt like I was shutting out the world. More like my world had simply gotten smaller."Then, the author's thought about guilt. That heavy weight which loads all people down at one time or another. "My guilt is met with endless indifference, endless silence."jeffbackhaus
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lyrical and intensely beautiful in it's depth., January 28, 2013
This review is from: Hikikomori and the Rental Sister: A Novel (Hardcover)
Retreating in grief and hiding to lick your wounds is not an uncommon phenomenon, but when that retreat progresses to an unhealthy isolation and can last for years, who are you indulging, and who is indulging you in your retreat from life. Just one of the several questions brought forward on the reading of this book. First I needed to check several sources to get the best feeling for a very Japanese idea that does not always translate well. Hikkomori: the closing off of oneself from the outside world, denying interaction with others, hiding where it's safe. Of course, to properly practice this retreat, one needs to have someone who is supportive, who wants to listen, and who patiently will `wait the phase out'. As Silke has reached the end of her patience and ideas to help heal, she brings in a woman who, with her newness and strangeness may be able to reach and heal Thomas, or relieve him of some of the heaviness.

In a lyrically written piece, the author is not asking us to understand Thomas' retreat, nor is he asking for forgiveness, but simply stating what is, as It happened, in all the odd permutations of this triad so desperate for healing. Intensely personal in feeling, the grief and guilt that Thomas carries within are palpable, and in a strange way, beautiful in its richness and detail. The three all need some form of healing and forgiveness, perhaps mostly from themselves, but the depths to which Thomas has sunk in his isolation, and the guilt Silke feels for letting it progress to such a degree are not instantly solved, but slowly eroded in little bits. With a very interesting, and at times puzzling, juxtaposition of the dual cultural approaches presented, and the author's facile handling of the story that never runs to overt pathos, this is a gripping read that is intense in both the story and the thoughts it leaves behind.

I received an eBook copy from Publisher through NetGalley. I was not compensated for this review, and all conclusions are my own responsibility.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Strange Voyeurism, February 6, 2013
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This review is from: Hikikomori and the Rental Sister: A Novel (Hardcover)
Hikikomori and the Rental Sister"The Rental Sister" is a strange, wonderful, and terrifying kind of voyeurism, not the sexual kind so much as the kind you get from accidentally eavesdropping on two people wrapped up in their private turmoils. What makes it even more fascinating is the alternating points of view, sometimes first person, sometimes third person. We watch the narrative the way we do a movie, from a distance until we're drawn in and find ourselves intimately involved. The writing is mesmerizing, and the resolution so natural and aching that it leave you with a lingering sense of having lived, for a moment, another life.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best books I've read in a long time, February 3, 2013
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This is a story about a man who is so wracked by guilt over the accidental death of his young son that he becomes a recluse in his own room. His wife, also grief-sticken, attempts to get on with her life as best she can and waits patiently for her husband to get on with his - however, he grows even more distant from her and the rest of the world. At her wits end, she risks her marriage and enlists a young Japanese girl to be a "rental sister" to try to break through his silence and rejection of the world.

It was a powerful, thought-provoking story that has stayed with me for weeks. Highly recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars People are peculiar, February 1, 2013
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The story catches your interest from the start. It really makes you think and question your reaction if in the same situation.I think I would have set fire to the apartment long before. They both needed counseling!
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Hikikomori and the Rental Sister: A Novel
Hikikomori and the Rental Sister: A Novel by Jeff Backhaus (Hardcover - January 8, 2013)
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