Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book Review: "Hikikomori and the Rental Sister" by Jeff Backhaus

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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