Hikikomori and the Rental Sister: A Novel by Jeff Backhaus (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2013. 256 pp)

Jeff Backhaus has been a cook, an art director, and a professional pilot. He has lived and worked in Korea, and now lives in New York.

Etymologically Speaking

Etymologically speaking, agoraphobia stands for a “fear of the marketplace.” By definition, the marketplace is a crowded, expansive, and anxiety-inducing space. Everyone goes to the market. We all have daily needs; a centralized space answers to those needs; we all frequent these spaces as a result.

Conceptually, I understand agoraphobia. If you feel as if the world is a burden and you are unsure of how to interact socially, why go outside? Why even try?

Perhaps, there’s something deeper, a level of guilt—that you do not deserve to exist in a society.

No matter the reasons, agoraphobia is a painful phenomenon both for the agoraphobe and for her loved ones.

In Japanese culture, this principle operates under the term, “hikikomori.” The term literally means pulling inward or being confined.

The notion of being withdrawn resides as a foundational theme in Jeff Backhaus’ brilliant debut, Hikkikomori and the Rental Sister.

Principal Characters

The book’s narrative centers around three principal characters: Thomas, Silke, and Megumi.

For the last three years, Thomas has locked himself in room in his Manhattan apartment. He avoids his wife, Silke, at all costs, sneaking out for supplies in the middle of the night. As the novel unfolds, the reader begins to understand the profound tragedy that begins and defines his isolation.

“I did not come inside one day, shut the door, and decide never 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).

Thomas’ wife, Silke, suffers in another way. She has lost a husband, despite the fact  he lives in the same apartment. Having tried everything to convince Thomas to conclude his isolation, Silke is at the end of her wits. For many, such difficulties would be grounds for divorce. In truth, life without Thomas would be much easier.

But there’s something about Thomas for which Silke believes in continuing the fight. So she tries one more option, a rental sister, named Megumi.

A recent immigrant from Japan, Megumi possesses particular knowledge of the hikikomori phenomenon—her brother spent many years confined to his room during their adolescence. Quickly, Megumi becomes drawn to Thomas’ case, and as we learn more about her, we see that she, too, is escaping a tortious past. Yet, she is a beacon to Thomas for a better future.

“Her voice gives her youth away. It has not yet hardened, it still carries in its melody the hope that things can be different from the way they are now, that we have the power to change the course of events” (50).

In the End It’s Just Ourselves

For me, the brilliance of Hikikomori and the Rental Sister lies with Jeff Backhaus’ strong characters and the philosophical undertones of the narrative, much like J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.

Whether Thomas, Silke, or Megumi, Backhaus accomplishes the remarkable feat of penning a real character. There are no caricatures here. The readers recognize Thomas’ pain; the shift toward agoraphobia makes complete sense. Silke’s hurt at losing a husband is evident and her actions flow from a grounded character. And Megumi flourishes underneath all her complications. She loves; she fails; she hopes; she conquers.

Even more, Hikikomori and the Rental Sister speaks to the profound idea of seclusion in our society. In many ways, we are all hikikomori. No matter how hard we try, how can we get out of our own heads? We talk ourselves into bad decisions; we talk ourselves out of good ones. We can exist within an extensive social web and never truly feel known.

Backhaus writes,

“No matter how big we try to make our world, in the end it’s just ourselves” (231).

I don’t know how I could say it better.

If you are interested in a beautifully written and developed book, go grab Hikikomori and the Rental Sister, it is well worth your time!

Verdict: 5 out of 5

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