Review: Hikikomori and the Rental Sister by Jeff Backhaus

Author: Jeff Backhaus
Title: Hikikomori and the Rental Sister
 Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: January 2013 
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 
Length: 246 pages 
Genre: Contemporary fiction 
Why I Read: Library browsing
Read If You’re: Looking for a character-driven, melancholic story; interested in hikikomori  
Quote: “Kindred spirits groping in the dark for each other, blind, pure, nameless feelings intertwined” (239)
Rating: ★★★½ [ratings guide]  
Links: GoodReads | IndieBound | Chapters | Amazon

Hikikomori: Japanese, literally “pulling inward, being confined”, refers to the phenomenon of reclusive adolescents or adults who withdraw from social life, often seeking extreme degrees of isolation and confinement (Wiki)

I added Hikikomori and the Rental Sister to my TBR list after stumbling across the book at the library. I can’t recall why I initially added it, but I picked it up this month expecting a darkly humorous tale. The story’s immediate poignancy prompted me to reread the back description – I wonder how I ever expected a black comedy!

Yet she stays, yet she comes down the hall, yet she believes in me. She thinks I’m the same man she married. And maybe I am, and maybe that’s the problem, that I always have been this man and always will be. (14)

Thomas, an American hikikomori, has been living in his bedroom for three years, a behavior prompted by the death of his son. Silke, Thomas’ wife, hires a young Japanese woman, Megumi, as a last resort to bring Thomas out of his hikikomori state. Megumi has experience with hikikomori, as her younger brother was one. The narration alternates between Megumi and Thomas, with Megumi’s narration being in third person and Thomas’ in first person. The hikikomori concept does not function merely as a gimmick. Backhaus uses the condition to explore the more universal conditions of love and grief. The book focuses on the relationships between Thomas, Silke and Megumi, and how those relationships are shaped by their experiences with grief and their love (or lack of love) for one another. I enjoy books in which character relationships really carry the story. I also like Backhaus’ prose – clean, succinct, certainly contemporary but not too stylized. Some compare him to Murakami or Ishiguro, I would say Backhaus falls between the two. He infuses both the plot and the prose with melancholic sadness, but that sadness does not engulf in the story. The characters find healing in their own ways.

I did not come inside one day, shut the door, and never decide to come out. I needed a day to grieve. Then a week. A month. Tired, I took a nap. When I woke it was dark. The walls were high. There was no way out. (34)

I particularly like that Megumi is a fully developed character, and that the reader learns as much about her as they do about Thomas. She helps Thomas and he helps her. She has her own motivations beyond Thomas. She’s not just a device to swoop in and transform Thomas’ life – or is she?

Please Note: The next paragraph discusses to what extent Megumi’s character is problematic, thus necessitating spoilers. Skip to The Bottom Line to avoid.

Megumi does have as much of a story as Thomas does. The reader hears from her perspective, learns her back story and comes to understand her as a whole character, rather than merely a device in Thomas’ story. However, if you look at her role in the book: she enters Thomas’ life, quickly engages in a sexual relationship with him, thereby rescuing him from his hikikomori state, and then returns back to Japan, allowing Thomas to return to his old life. Although Backhaus develops Megumi’s character, she still functions as a device to rescue to Thomas. When I first finished the book, I thought Megumi and Thomas’ roles in each others lives were balanced, but now I find that harder to argue. Additionally, Megumi is a young, sexy, Japanese woman written by a white man. Such a character could easily go wrong, and I still think Megumi could have been written a lot worse than she was. But the nature of the plot still subjects her to some Orientalism, no matter how much I tried to explain it away to myself in an attempt to justify my liking of this book. The Japanese woman rescues the American man, due to her Japanese-ness. I liked Megumi. She felt like a real person to me. The story felt real to me, I believed it could happen. Yet by making Megumi the white man’s saviour, Backhaus reduces her character to ‘the Other’, the fantasized woman from a land far away. If you’ve read the book, please share your thoughts on Megumi – this was a difficult paragraph for me to sort out and I’m sure my opinion of the book could benefit from mutual discussion. 

The Bottom Line: Backhaus explores the relationships between love and grief in this quiet, flowing tale. The story stood out to me in its balance of perspectives and its contemporary prose, but Megumi’s role in the story remains problematic. I would like to read more by this author – hopefully he grows in his portrayal of race.