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In Hikikomori and the Rental Sister, Jeff Backhaus introduces us to an interesting part of Japanese culture that I’ve never heard of before. To become hikikomori is to withdraw completely from society. After the death of his young son, Thomas Tessler traps himself in his bedroom in New York City, ignoring his wife, Silke, and only coming out in the middle of the night to gather groceries and do laundry. As you might imagine (after three years. Yes, that’s three Years. Uh huh, I said three YEARS), Silke is running out of patience and becoming a little desperate. So, she employs a young woman named Megumi to act as a “rental sister,” someone to coax Thomas out of his room. Having already worked through her brother’s hikikomori struggle, Megumi seems like the perfect candidate to help Thomas, but as their relationship develops everything grows more complicated.
While the characters in this narrative are memorable, the plot is a little lacking in complexity. All the pieces are there, but they don’t really flow together quite the way they should. Megumi’s history is a little spotty, and only really shows up to fill out plot holes that would otherwise swing the narrative in a darker and more realistic direction. Silke and Thomas have interesting interactions, but they don’t always ring true. For being so introverted, Thomas comes out of his room and his shell a little too easily around both Megumi and Silke, while Silke seems to be in a constant state of emotional collapse. Not that she shouldn’t be on the verge of such a collapse, but the constant imploding/exploding feels a little insincere after already dealing with the situation for a thousand days.
The good part is that you develop feelings for the characters that absolutely are sincere. Even if their reactions don’t always make sense, the situations are intimate and universal. Silke’s fear and frustration that she might lose her husband, Thomas’s crippling depression and guilt, and Megumi’s desire for love are portrayed with a brutal clarity that just sorta sweeps you up into their lives. Though the plot’s outer layers are a little frayed, the central knot that ties these characters together is a weaving, rigid spheroid. You want them all to have a happy ending even though their happiness is, at its core, completely incompatible.
Really, I think Backhaus just came a little too lightly into the publishing world. The parts of the plot that don’t work are mostly in the service of developing a more pleasant ending than these discordant relationships would actually allow. The interactions that feel false could be fleshed out by adding a little thickness to this sparse book that needs contortions to reach its 250 pages. The basics are there. It has compelling characters. It has an interesting concept. It has a story that deserves to be told. It just lacks the finer qualities that could very well come along when Backhaus has some more experience and feels comfortable enough to delve into the depths of his tale.