Title: Hikikomori and the Rental Sister
Author: Jeff Backhaus
Pub. Date: January 8, 2013
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Isolated, withdrawn, damaged, Thomas is “hikikomori.”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.
Genre: Fiction, Contemporary
A little hope shows how little hope there is. It’s crushing.
Hikikomori and the Rental Sister is unlike any book I have ever read. Thomas (pronounced Toe-maahs) Tessler has been spending the last three years locked away in his bedroom, refusing any interaction with the outside world. The world in which his child died. For Thomas his grief started out as spending time alone with his thoughts, his guilt. Over time, however, it became more and more difficult to open that door and go out into the apartment. His wife Silke has stood by him, trying to coax him out in her own way: cooking his favorite dinners, leaving her bedroom door open. After three years all of her failed pleas and gentle urges, Silke hires a “rental sister,” a young woman who understands hikikomori and will act as a sister to Thomas.
“The paramedics said, ‘Stand back, please.’ And just like that our jobs as parents were over.”
Thomas’s worldview hinders on his son’s death and for the majority of the novel, the reader doesn’t know exactly how he died, only that he did. A sunny day, an untied shoelace, a broken coffee mug, these are the vivid details that Thomas replays over and over in his mind. As time goes on, some of the details become a little fuzzy (was it the right shoelace that was untied or the left?), but the end result remains the same: one moment Silke and Thomas were parents, the next they were crouched over their son’s body.
Although there was nothing Thomas could have done to change things, he still remains convinced of his guilt. There are reminders in their apartment of his son’s existence and the three-year old stain on the concrete outside his window haunts Thomas. It’s safer in his bedroom. Locked away he doesn’t have to face the past.
Perhaps she is not here. Perhaps I am still listening to her story and my mind has raced forward to contemplate the possible effects of an as-yet-unmade decision and what I am seeing and feeling is not real but a prediction of what I would see and feel were I to open the door, and as such I am learning a lesson: that the locks belong secured and the door belongs shut.
Megumi is the hired rental sister. Having left Japan three years prior after the death of her brother, her own hikikomori experience, Megumi now works at a wagashi shop. When Silke desperately asks for her help, Megumi wants nothing more than to run away and turn her back on this woman. Ultimately she gives in and agrees to a single visit – no promises – and if nothing changes, that’s it, there’s nothing more she can do.
When Megumi visits the apartment for the first time, all three characters become interlaced. Thomas, Silke, Megumi – three incredibly flawed characters, each hiding their own secrets.
Right on the tail of finishing some fairly action-packed and fast-paced novels, Hikikomori and the Rental Sister caught me off-guard. I wasn’t prepared for its quiet nature. At times the story barely gets above a whisper when I was used to bold, in-your-face tales. That said, I enjoyed it immensely and hung onto every word.
I have been unearthed like a cracked skeleton, evidence of some previous, now extinct existence, here this whole time just beneath your nose, waiting to be noticed.
The novel alternates between Thomas and Megumi and it was great to get into their minds. With each of Megumi’s visits, Thomas’s barriers soften a bit. At first it was just conversation, then it was an open door. Soon these visits became longer and longer, even stretching into overnight stays. Megumi loves Thomas, Silke loves Thomas, Thomas loves Megumi and Silke. Flawed, broken characters all around and I loved it.
Clocking in at under 250 pages, Hikikomori and the Rental Sister tricks readers into thinking it’s a quick novel that can be easily digested and tossed aside once it’s done. Don’t be fooled: this novel made me think and even now that I’ve finished, I’m still feeling its effects.
Completely unique and beautifully written, Hikikomori and the Rental Sister is an unsuspecting novel and grabs you and won’t let go.
The whole time in my room I felt like a photograph in Silke’s wallet. She carried me around always but I remained mute and motionless. And now here I am. Silke ripped up the photograph and set me free. Human beings were meant to move.
Disclaimer: All quotes are from an uncorrected proof and could change in the final copy.