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by Jeff Backhaus

Pub Date: Jan. 8th, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-61620-137-1
Publisher: Algonquin

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.