11 September 2012

Book (P)Review: Hikikomori and the Rental Sister by Jeff Backhaus

I first heard of this book back in early June at BEA, when I stopped by the Algonquin booth and their marketing guru pulled me aside and said, "Have you ever heard of hikikomori?"  "You stepped in what?" I responded.  Craig then told me about this Japanese state of being in which people, almost exclusively males in the late teens-to-early-thirties range, lock themselves up in a room and never come out. Apparently it's becoming more and more widespread, and so families rely on hired "rental sisters" to coax these young men out of seclusion. Thus began my acquaintance with hikikomori and my interest in Jeff Backhaus's debute novel, Hikikomori and the Rental Sister. I told Craig that he needed to send me a review copy as soon as they were ready because really, how could this book be anything but fascinating?

This is one of the books that is difficult for me to review, so I'm going to take the easy way out by first providing a Goodreads summary: Thomas Tessler, devastated by a tragedy, has cloistered himself in his bedroom and shut out the world for the past three years. His wife, Silke, lives 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. Isolated, withdrawn, damaged, Thomas is "hikikomori."Desperate for one last chance to salvage their life together, Silke hires Megumi, a young Japanese woman attuned to the "hikikomori" phenomenon, to lure Thomas back into the world. Back in Japan Megumi is called a "rental sister," though her job may involve much more than familial comforts. At first Thomas remains steadfast and sequestered, but as he grows to trust Megumi, a deepening and sensual relationship unfolds.

I've read a few Japanese authors before, I'm friends with westerners who have lived in Japan, AND I've read David Sedaris' excellent essay about moving to Japan to quit smoking, so it's not like I'm a scholar of that great nation or anything, but all I can say is that Japan and its culture are mysteries to me. Reading Japanese novels feels to me like I felt when I was in my second year of learning French and trying to read simple poems and short stories in that language: I could grasp the literal meaning of the words, sure. And I had a very general understanding of the piece. But it was clear to me that I was merely reading on the surface and missing out on fathoms of meaning.  That's pretty much how I feel when reading Haruki Murakami, even his most "accessible" works.

Jeff Backhaus is not a Japanese writer, but he has taken a quintessentially Japanese phenomenon and somehow managed to create an American novel that is bookended with Japanese sensibility. Thomas' tragedy is that he feels responsible for the death of his and Silke's son; Megumi's connection with Thomas is that her brother was also hikikomori, but her secret is that she left Japan after her family was torn apart by her brother's death.  Silke mostly remains a shadow of a person, one that we never quite get to know.

Backhaus chooses to intersperse chapters of Thomas's first person, present tense narrator, with a more detached third person narrator, also present tense.  As my friends and readers of this blog may know, I'm not crazy about present tense narration, particularly first person ones. They either create a false sense of urgency or they make me feel like I'm listening to a golf commentator's hushed tone narrating the book: "She kneels down to eye the green. She takes her time, she's lining up the putt, and oh, too bad, she just misses that one."  You know what I mean?

The opening and concluding chapters rely largely on words going unspoken and things left undone, where the true meaning lies somewhere between what is said and the silence surrounding it, while the middle sections are almost self-indulgent acts of selfish sharing, if you'll forgive the oxymoron. This might sound like criticism, but I don't mean it that way at all--I think that's what makes this book the perfect blend of Japanese and American sensibilities.

As conceptually bizarre as I find hikikomori, this book was both intriguing and engrossing and I found it to be a quick read.  There are a few passages that I noted, with which I'll conclude my post, but before that, a note about the cover design. The red and black are so bold as to be nearly an abstract graphic, but then you notice the letter H and I.  Maybe hi? I only have the ARC with a decorated front wrap, so I don't know if there will be a wraparound to the rear wrap. Perhaps there will be more letters?  If so, I'd guess a K. If not, then perhaps the simple greeting of "hi" stands on its own and is a brilliant design for the content. Now take a closer look: there's a small female robin perching on top of the (san-serif) second downstroke of the H. I, for one, didn't notice her the first few times I picked up the book, but she's equally important to the content.  The interior design is also easy on the eyes, with good chapter headings and the use of small caps for the first few words of the opening paragraph. Algonquin doesn't include a note on the type like Random House does (more's the pity), so I don't know which typeface is used, but it's attractive.

All in all, I recommend this book for those looking for an unusual read with a sensibility that differs from most English-language-not-in-translation books.

"Entire afternoons go missing. I sit cross-legged on the bed or on the floor reading magazines, sometimes unfolding and melting into supine sleep, but sleep is not what steals the hours. They go missing while I am awake, wide awake, so wide that I am rendered unaware. The walls of my room, what tricks they play: boxing in my wilted soul, paralyzing the clock then suddenly lurching it forward hours, even days. Sometimes weeks. Months (30)."
"'We're always looking for some sort of bigger world. Something bigger, better. Maybe this country is for me just one big bedroom, away from my family and my past. Maybe my brother withdrew to his room and you withdrew to your room and I withdrew all the way across the ocean, all the way to New York. Maybe I'm just as stuck as you are. Maybe I'm hiding from the future' (231)."

NB: This book will be published by Algonquin in January 2013. I received a complimentary ARC at my request. 


  1. "Maybe I'm hiding from the future." I dunno, dude, isn't that one of those things authors are supposed to let the reader figure out, and not just SAY?

    1) I totally don't get Japanese culture either. At all.

    2) I tend to be really leery of white American guys who write books about tortured white American guys who fall in love with tiny beautiful Japanese women. Like, dude, write your fantasy on Word and read it yourself, but don't publish it.

    3) I grant that it's early and I'm cranky. But STILL.

    1. Okay, reading your #2 made me snort. Perhaps this isn't the book for you, Alice. The Japanese parts will leave you scratching your head and the American parts will leave you shaking your head. Or maybe that's just me?

  2. Some days I can understand the appeal of going into a room and never coming out!

  3. It sounds like an interesting topic but a challenging read. Thanks for a good review.

  4. This sounds very interesting and I will put it on my wishlist. I'm not sure whether it's for me, but it's definitely worth trying it out.

  5. this does sound fascinating. I'm going to keep my eye out for it! I don't read a lot about Japan but it never hurts to dip into something new.


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