Thursday, May 2, 2013

Hikikomori and the Rental Sister; Jeff Backhaus

Title: Hikikomori and the Rental Sister
Author: Jeff Backhaus
Publication Year:  2013

Publisher: Algonquin and HighBridge Audio
Edition: eGalley and audio
Source: NetGalley/ and library

Setting: New York City
Date Completed: April - 2013
Rating: 4/5 
Recommended: yes

Hikikomori and the Rental Sister, is a very different story.  If some of you are like me and not familiar with the phenomenon of "hikikomori", it's something that is kind of common in Japan.  The "hikikomori" tend to be mostly men,  who retreat in isolation either to their rooms or someplace else where they do not have to engage with others in the world around them. In the US we would probably think about someone in this situation as severely depressed and in need of "electro-shock treatments. In Japan, however, they look to the "rental sister" as a last hope for bringing a person out of their self-imposed isolation to function as they once had.
In this novel there are actually (3) damaged individuals who we are introduced to. Thomas and Silke Tessler are husband and wife, and Megumi is the "rental sister" in the title who has recently arrived from Japan.
Thomas, the "hikikomori" of the story, has retreated to his locked room for over (3) years, ever since his young son who he was caring for, ran out into traffic and was killed. Devastated by this and carrying a huge amount of guilt ever since, what started out as grieving in private, resulted in shutting himself off from the world and even his own wife. He only leaves his room when he is sure most of the world, including his wife who sleeps next door, is asleep, and ventures out for food and supplies he will need. By day he goes over and over the events leading up to his young son's death. He keeps a journal which he calls "My Life Through Scars, where he writes his deepest feelings. Silke is desperate and has been trying to communicate with him verbally and with notes, but nothing has worked, so she hires Megumi to help even though she is aware of the risk. Megumi is a young women, also damaged, who experienced the phenomenon first hand with her own brother. Her job is establish a relationship of trust and even intimacy if necessary.
The novel is so different. On the one hand it was fascinating leaning about this Japanese phenomenon, and the writing is really beautiful. It's fewer than 300 pages and just (6) discs/ (6) hours for the audio version. It's read by Scott Bowlby who did a very good job, but it took me a long time to finish this one. It's a quiet story that that held my interest, yet for some reason I never felt bad for Thomas. I warmed up to the two women and their personal heartaches, but Thomas left me feeling unmoved.  I also found it strange that the story took place in NYC instead of Japan, but for whatever reason, it worked.
Readers looking for something a bit different should enjoy this book. 


  1. I liked this one better than you did, but I read it in print. The whole phenomenon was fascinating to me.

  2. This is very interesting. I never heard of this practice!

  3. This sounds fascinating. I'm not familiar with hikikomori and agree that we would think the person needed some kind of treatment if that happened in this country.

  4. I remember seeing this book and wondering what it was about. It sounds like it would have the potential to be moving and sad.

  5. Too sad and frustrating for me right now. I think my reaction would be that he should pull himself together by whatever means and get on with life.

  6. I love the evocative name of your blog, makes me want to retreat to the beach with a good book. I have never heard of the phenomenom described in this book either. The difference in cultural perceptions, as you point out, is interesting.

  7. It does seem strange that you wouldn't come to care about Thomas but overall this one sounds very interesting. I'm always up for something unique!

  8. It sounds like a fascinating story, sad too. You wrote another great review Diane. Thank you!

  9. I've heard of this practice a few times but never read a book focused about it. The NYC setting does seem odd though. Glad it worked.


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