~by Jeff Backhaus
Hikikomori and the Rental Sister is Jeff Backhaus' debut novel. I first learned about the book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program, but after I started reading the novel it seemed like I was seeing it mentioned everywhere. Hikikomori and the Rental Sister was published in 2013 by Algonquin Books in the United States and by HarperCollins in Canada. Algonquin Books focuses on publishing the works of young and upcoming writers. Backhaus' debut caught my attention because of the use of "hikikomori" in the title. A sociological phenomenon in Japan, hikikomori are young people who have withdrawn from society. Rental sisters are a sort of outreach counselor who work to reintegrate and bring hikikomori back into the world. Hikikomori are a subject that I have a particular interest in and so was curious to see how Backhaus would incorporate the phenomenon into his first published novel.
For three years, Thomas Tessler has shut himself away in the room he once shared with his wife Silke, only occasionally sneaking out of the apartment at night to replenish his supplies of food. For three years, Silke has been desperately waiting for her husband to open the door so that they can return to some sort of life resembling normalcy. She still loves him, but after such a long period of time she is beginning to lose hope. Silke decides to give Thomas one last chance and hires Megumi to draw him out into the real world. Initially Megumi had no intention of helping Silke or Thomas--her own tragic experiences with her brother living as a shut-in in Japan is a wound that is still very fresh. But she has a hard time saying no when confronted head on by Silke and the Tessler's plight. In the end, it turns out that Megumi needs Thomas just as much as he needs her.
Hikikomori and the Rental Sister is a tale of pain, loss, guilt, and grief. Megumi, Silke, and Thomas are all broken people who have had their lives torn apart by circumstances out of their control despite any blame they might place on themselves. Although Silke is in many ways the catalyst of the story, she is the character about which the least is known. Unfortunately, she is largely left undeveloped. Hikikomori and the Rental Sister places its focus on Thomas and Megumi and their relationship instead, slowly revealing their personal tragedies and trauma as the novel progresses. Like Silke, they are both in need of healing. In the beginning, Thomas is very reclusive and withdrawn. To him, Megumi is a pest. But she doesn't give up on Thomas and in the process shows him parts of herself that no one else has seen before. He changes her and she changes him. The relationship they develop with each other is complicated one.
Hikikomori and the Rental Sister is an engrossing and extraordinarily intimate novel. The chapters shift between first-person and third-person narratives told in the present tense. Personally, I often find novels written in the present tense to be irritating. But in the case of Hikikomori and the Rental Sister, Backhaus has done an excellent job and has used the technique to great effect. The chapters told from Thomas' point of view come across as particularly immediate and personal as the readers are privy to the changes in his thoughts, feelings, and state of mind as they occur. There isn't really a grand story or driving plot to Hikikomori and the Rental Sister. Instead, the novel captures the characters at a very specific time in their lives which may or may not be turning-point for them. I found Hikikomori and the Rental Sister to be an absorbing read and a strong debut. I would certainly be interested in Backhaus' future works.