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Hikikomori and the Rental Sister: A Novel Hardcover – January 8, 2013
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The Amazon Book Review
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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
*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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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.
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.