I’m facing a bit of a conundrum with this book: just how little can I tell you and still entice you to check out this astonishing debut novel by emerging-fully-formed-like-Athena, new author Jeff Backhaus?
Hmm … might this work? Drop everything and read this book NOW.
Still not convinced? Okay, let’s try examining the title. Unless you know something about contemporary Japanese subculture, you probably aren’t familiar with the social phenomenon of hikikomori, or reclusive shut-ins. The book’s back cover explains, “literally pulling inward; refers to those who withdraw from society.” Then we have “the rental sister” – she’s a counselor hired by the hikikomori’s family to try to draw him (most are male) back into the world.
Backhaus’s dual narrative is subtly, hauntingly constructed like musical counterpoint, harmonious and independent both. His two protagonists, promised in the title, cannot ignore an important third whose presence continuously looms just beyond. And then there are the spectres …
Thomas Tessler has lived alone in his New York City room for three years. “‘I have never heard of an American hikikomori,’” his potential ‘rental sister’ remarks when she is asked to visit him by her downtown boutique employer, who in turn has been sought out by Thomas’ desperate, waiting, still-hopeful wife Silke. Megumi, a recent immigrant from Japan, is much more than a ‘rental’; her real-life experience with her own hikikomori brother makes her almost an expert.
Thomas and Megumi’s relationship begins with a letter, delivered by Silke under his door. When conversation doesn’t initially work through the locked barrier, Megumi tries pushing through an origami penguin which Thomas admires then pushes back out. But even in the exchange of offering and rejection, the tiniest promise of communication emerges … and inevitably grows.
To tell you anything more about missing children, a lost sibling, Japanese violence against Koreans, not to mention the wrenching disconnect (and reconnect) of our contemporary lives, would surely be giving away too much.
Some secrets must remain within these pages … and their discovery needs to be on your own. Go, already, go!
Tidbit: After – let me say that again – AFTER you finish this breathtaking novel, check out the 2006 New York Times article, “Shutting Themselves In,” for further fascinating, illuminating, investigative reading.
Tidbit2: On February 15, Jeff Backhaus (really! in the “twitterflesh,” as he describes it – he’s @jeff_backhaus, FYI) sent this: “@SIBookDragon Check out my new short story, about an American immigrant in Korea, either on tumblr or on an e-reader. http://bit.ly/WutTGB.” Since I’m such a Luddite, when asked, he sent these directions: “@SIBookDragon If you want to read them in order start from the bottom left. Then just keep clicking ‘PREV POST.’ Or just skip around.” As for his next novel, he reveals this: “The next novel is still a pile of notebooks, but I’m working hard.” Amazing what can happen on Twitter! Gawwww.