Hikikomori and the Rental Sister

( 6 )

Overview

hikikomori, literally pulling inward; refers to those who withdraw from society.

Inspired by the real-life Japanese social phenomenon called hikikomori and the professional “rental sisters” hired to help, Hikikomori and the Rental Sister is about an erotic relationship between Thomas, an American hikikomori, and Megumi, a young Japanese immigrant hiding from her own past. The strange, insular world they create together in a New York City bedroom and with the tacit acknowledgment...

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The Rental Sister: A Novel

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Overview

hikikomori, literally pulling inward; refers to those who withdraw from society.

Inspired by the real-life Japanese social phenomenon called hikikomori and the professional “rental sisters” hired to help, Hikikomori and the Rental Sister is about an erotic relationship between Thomas, an American hikikomori, and Megumi, a young Japanese immigrant hiding from her own past. The strange, insular world they create together in a New York City bedroom and with the tacit acknowledgment of Thomas’s wife reveals three human hearts in crisis, but leaves us with a profound faith in the human capacity to find beauty and meaning in life, even after great sorrow. Mirroring both East and West in its search for healing, Hikikomori and the Rental Sister pierces the emotional walls of grief and delves into the power of human connection to break through to the world waiting outside.

Named an Indie Next pick, an Amazon Best Book of the Month, one of Book Riot’s 5 to Watch, and an iBookstore Editor’s Choice in hardcover.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Hikikomori, Backhaus explains in his implausible debut, is the Japanese term for withdrawn, an experience apparently more common than Silke Tessler realizes when she goes looking for help for her husband, Thomas, who shut himself up in a room three years earlier and has barely been outside of it since. Though the traditional ”rental sister” concept—evidently an antidote for a hikikomori—remains vague, in this novel it means that Silke hires a beautiful 22-year-old Japanese girl to bring Thomas back into the world. Lucky for him, oral sex and illicit nights together hiding from Silke work wonders with even the most reclusive. While the intellectual underpinning of the book could be said to pose interesting questions about guilt, love, and renewal, more often than not it reads like an adolescent fantasy in which Thomas, in order to save himself and his marriage, must subject himself to Megumi’s “immense” sexual appetite; what could be better than a wife-approved tryst with a publicly demure but privately voracious young woman who wants nothing in return? Blatant metaphors of winter, spring, and a spiritually cleansing trip to the hot springs don’t buoy the disagreeable proceedings. Agent: David Marshall, Marshall Rights. (Jan.)
The Wall Street Journal

“[A] strange and tender debut novel . . . His writing, which is as clear and direct as flowing water, convincingly portrays the deepening connection between Thomas and Megumi.”

The Toronto Star

“This is one remarkable debut.”

St. Louis Post Dispatch

“Written deeply, cleanly, sparely and gently, like fingers playing over the strings of a harp.”

The New York Post

“Required reading.”

Reviews
“A mesmerizing debut at once sorrowful, intimate, and optimistic . . . Told in crisp and lyrical prose and a nontraditional narrative that shifts between first- and third-person, Backhaus’s novel is courageous and spare, an enthralling success.” —Booklist, starred review

“[A] strange and tender debut novel . . . His writing, which is as clear and direct as flowing water, convincingly portrays the deepening connection between Thomas and Megumi.” —The Wall Street Journal

“This is one remarkable debut.” —The Toronto Star

“Tender and deftly rendered.” —Arkansas Democrat Gazette

“The book is . . . written deeply, cleanly, sparely and gently, like fingers playing over the strings of a harp. Jeff Backhaus has apparently worked at many jobs, but it seems that he has now found his vocation.” —St. Louis Post Dispatch

“Listen to the music of this novel closely. It is the sound of genius. To miss it would be to miss a story that will change the way you feel about your own life.” —Robert Goolrick, author of A Reliable Wife

“Required reading.” —The New York Post

Booklist

“A mesmerizing debut at once sorrowful, intimate, and optimistic . . . Told in crisp and lyrical prose and a nontraditional narrative that shifts between first- and third-person, Backhaus’s novel is courageous and spare, an enthralling success.”—Booklist, starred review

Kirkus Reviews
A debut novel of grief and its porn-fantasy resolution. The hikikomori of the title is Thomas Tessler. He has lived locked in a room in his Manhattan apartment for three years, while his wife, Silke, goes on with her life next door in their former bedroom. Thomas leaves the apartment on rare occasions, at night, to stock up on supplies--TV dinners, canned food, coffee--while Silke sleeps. At her wit's end, Silke finds a young Japanese woman, Megumi, the rental sister of the title, to lure Thomas out of his room. Thomas has locked himself in because he cannot get over the death of his son, for which he feels overwhelming guilt. What the patient and loving Silke cannot accomplish, Megumi pulls off in a matter of weeks. Megumi's brother was also hikikomori in Japan, where apparently the phenomenon is more common, the hikikomori having a cultural identity or dignity unavailable in the States--and this qualifies her to visit the American stranger. As we learn more about Megumi--she sold her panties for shopping money and then her body to spirit her brother out of the country--one of the most egregious stereotypes emerges from this chrysalis: the hooker with a heart of gold. Of course Megumi falls for Thomas. He is the strong, silent type after all. Thomas' lair turns out to be the perfect place to carry on an affair, and Silke seems to accept, if not welcome it--she contracted for it. A handful of taut moments explore the dramatic potential of this ménage à trois. A conflagration heralds a conclusion consistent with conventional expectations. Occasional moments of fine writing cannot salvage this unpromising debut.
Wall Street Journal
“Backhaus’s strange and tender debut novel . . . traces the painful rehabilitations of three lonely souls. His writing . . . is clear and direct as flowing water.”
Wall Street Journal
USA Today
“[A] quiet but poignant exploration of loneliness and self-discovery.”
USA Today
From the Publisher
“[A] quiet but poignant exploration of loneliness and self-discovery.”
USA Today

“Stephen Bowlby’s use of an unemotional voice for narrator Thomas captures the tone of this quirky, spare story of loneliness, grief, and love. . . . With this debut, Backhaus proves he is an author to watch. Recommended.”
Library Journal

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781616201371
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Publication date: 1/8/2013
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,506,401
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeff Backhaus has been a cook, an art director, and a professional pilot. He lived and worked in Korea and now lives in New York. Author website: www.jeffbackhaus.com.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2013

    One star is being generous. Yawn.

    One star is being generous. Yawn.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2013

    THIS IS A HOT MESS OF A BOOK. I WAS SHOCKED BY HOW POORLY WRITT

    THIS IS A HOT MESS OF A BOOK. I WAS SHOCKED BY HOW POORLY WRITTEN IT IS. ALL THE REVIEWS SAY HOW IT HAS A 'PORN-RESOLUTION.' THAT IS HAS. I DISLIKED THE PROTAGONIST IMMENSELY. THIS BOOK IS SHOCKINGLY BAD, ESPECIALLY SINCE IT COMES FROM A FINE HOUSE LIKE ALGONQUIN. SHAME ON ALGONQUIN FOR PUBLISHING THIS DISASTER.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 1, 2013

    A poignant tale of loss, depression, dedication, faith, healing

    A poignant tale of loss, depression, dedication, faith, healing and love. 

    The Japanese term "Hikikomori" means acute social withdrawal. It refers to the phenomenon of reclusive adolescents or young adults who withdraw from social life, often seeking extreme degrees of isolation and confinement. (source: Wikipedia)

    In Japan, this is a common enough phenomenon, but in other countries, it has yet to be identified and addressed. Since I have a fascination with the Japanese culture, I requested to read and review this book. Thankfully, I was approved.

    In Jeff Backhaus' Hikikomori and the Rental Sister, we meet Thomas, an American hikikomori who has lived in isolation in his room for three years. Even his wife, Silke, couldn't get him to come out, so she engaged the help of Megumi, a Japanese immigrant who once had a brother who was also a hikikomori.

    First off, I love how Thomas' mind worked. His different level of thinking was poetically depicted in the novel and I really liked it. There was also contrast as to Thomas' trail of thoughts at the beginning of the book and at the end, which really showed just how much change he went through.

    The thing is, different people have different ways of coping with grief. It just so happened that Thomas dealt with his grief through isolation. Or perhaps, in creating his own world outside the norms of society. And this was thoroughly depicted in this novel, which I found really unique.

    As for the relationship between Megumi and Thomas, while I disapprove of the intimate relationship they share (cheating is cheating no matter how much you justify it), I understand why it happened. It was like they were two broken people who found solace in each other. They didn't need to be fixed, they needed to be understood and cared for. 

    Another interesting comparison I found was between Megumi and Thomas. Yes, I found that they were two broken people with lots of issues, but while Thomas stayed isolated, Megumi remained active in society. The novel showed the contrasting coping mechanisms they used to deal with their problems. Thomas escaped by isolation, Megumi escaped entirely to a new country.

    I also appreciate Silke, Thomas' wife, for her dedication and patience, even when Thomas hardly ever responded to her. She loved him deeply and stuck it out for him even in the worst of circumstances, that's why I felt vindicated by the end of the story.

    For me, the most beautiful part of the story would be the end. It wasn't as grand as most happy endings were, but it was bittersweet. It made me feel like looking back at everything that happened, I would just smile despite the tragedy and loss.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2013

    I really enjoyed this book. I knew before reading it that this

    I really enjoyed this book. I knew before reading it that this was a first time effort by the writer but I honestly couldn't tell while reading the book. I was most impressed by the way the writer describes the horrible event that lead to the protagonist (Thomas) retreating from the world through flashbacks. You get a real sense of his pain and you then later see how that same painful feeling of loss is shared with Megumi, Thomas' 'rental sister'. There is real talent here and I'm looking forward to more books from the author.

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  • Posted January 30, 2013

    Hikikomori and the Rental Sister Jeff Backhaus ISBN: 978-1-61620

    Hikikomori and the Rental Sister
    Jeff Backhaus
    ISBN: 978-1-61620-137-1
    2013
    4 Stars
    hikikomori, n hikika’mouri; literally pulling inward; refers to those who withdraw from society.---Taken from the back of the book.
    Thomas, an American, has withdrawn from life. He will not leave his room and barely speaks to his wife who stays by his side and still fights for what once was. Megumi, a Japanese immigrant, has run to America to forget her traumatic past and finds herself hired by Thomas’ wife to be his rental sister. Thomas and Megumi slowly form a bond in his room that proves to them that they have lives to live; lives they may have damaged.
    I will admit that if I would have written this review last night when I finished reading I would have given it less stars. The thought of throwing the book crossed my mind near the end because it made me so angry. I knew that, so I slept on it and can be less emotional about it now. The fact that I was angry really is a good thing (the author did something right) and I can recognize that.
    I will also admit that I did not like either Thomas or Megumi, both of which are the protagonists. That also isn’t a bad thing. They were both vivid and relatable, so this was not the author’s failure. There was something unlikable about them for me. Maybe it was the fact that I could predict where the story was going, which by the way, is my one complaint about this story. The novel is surprisingly calm and flows so smoothly that it was surprising that it elicited such strong emotions from me. My poor husband had to hear all about it.
    A huge positive side effect of this one is the fact that I learned something new. Immediately I was looking up Hikikomori and rental sisters. I find the whole thing fascinating and am looking for more books on the subject. This is another novel I will recommend.

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  • Posted January 28, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Retreating in grief and hiding to lick your wounds is not an unc

    Retreating in grief and hiding to lick your wounds is not an uncommon phenomenon, but when that retreat progresses to an unhealthy isolation and can last for years, who are you indulging, and who is indulging you in your retreat from life.  Just one of the several questions brought forward on the reading of this book.  First I needed to check several sources to get the best feeling for a very Japanese idea that does not always translate well. Hikkomori: the closing off of oneself from the outside world, denying interaction with others, hiding where it’s safe.  Of course, to properly practice this retreat, one needs to have someone who is supportive, who wants to listen, and who patiently will ‘wait the phase out’.  As Silke has reached the end of her patience and ideas to help heal, she brings in a woman who, with her newness and strangeness may be able to reach and heal Thomas, or relieve him of some of the heaviness. 




    In a lyrically written piece, the author is not asking us to understand Thomas’ retreat, nor is he asking for forgiveness, but simply stating what is, as It happened, in all the odd permutations of this triad so desperate for healing.  Intensely personal in feeling, the grief and guilt that Thomas carries within are palpable, and in a strange way, beautiful in its richness and detail.  The three all need some form of healing and forgiveness, perhaps mostly from themselves, but the depths to which Thomas has sunk in his isolation, and the guilt Silke feels for letting it progress to such a degree are not instantly solved, but slowly eroded in little bits. With a very interesting, and at times puzzling, juxtaposition of the dual cultural approaches presented, and the author’s facile handling of the story that never runs to overt pathos, this is a gripping read that is intense in both the story and the thoughts it leaves behind.




    I received an eBook copy from Publisher through NetGalley. I was not compensated for this review, and all conclusions are my own responsibility. 

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