The phenomenon of hikikomori, a growing Japanese subculture of young men who withdraw--the word translates as "withdrawal"--to their rooms and cut themselves off from social contact with others, was explained in a 2006 New York Times article. "Some hikikomori do occasionally emerge from their rooms for meals [or] late night runs to convenience stores," Maggie Jones wrote. "Experts estimate that about 80% of the hikikomori are male… some live in their rooms for 15 years or more."
Jeff Backhaus's debut novel, Hikikomori and the Rental Sister, moves this phenomenon to New York City. Thomas Tessler has been in his room for three years, believing that he was responsible for his son's death and unable to forgive himself. His wife, Silke, comes and goes and, while she is cooking or cleaning, keeps up a running commentary with Thomas behind his closed door. She always leaves her bedroom door open and occasionally sits in front of Thomas's door and sobs uncontrollably. Thomas registers her moods, from friendly banter to screaming anger, and does not respond. He leaves his room in the middle of the night to get food and supplies, never speaking to Silke.
Finally, in desperation, Silke seeks out a young Japanese immigrant named Megumi to act as as a "rental sister," giving her a key to the apartment and permission to do whatever it takes to lure Thomas out of hiding. Inevitably, after several rebuffs, Thomas lets Megumi into his room and they form an easy intimacy. They have no history, so there is nothing to remember or forgive. He tells her of his failure of instinct, not pushing his son out of the path of a car and she responds matter-of-factly: "You didn't kill him. If you did, you'd be in jail."
Megumi has run away from her own tragedy. Her brother was a hikikomori; he killed himself after realizing he would never fit into Japanese society because he had a Korean mother.
Silke realizes that Thomas and Megumi have a relationship that does not include her. One night, she makes a dramatic move that changes the equation forever, as the trio's roles and feelings become clearly defined. Before any final decisions are made, though, Backhaus presents a lovely set piece with Thomas and Megumi at an onsen--a Japanese hot spring--where in salt and steam and tears all things are cleansed. --Valerie Ryan
Shelf Talker: A young man who has secluded himself from his wife and his life for three years is lured back to the world by a rental sister with her own tragic story.