I have been slumping so hard lately but little by little, I managed to finish this book! I read a little on my lunch breaks, in between games, before bed; in an attempt to integrate reading back into my life and I think this book resonated with me quite well despite a rough start.
Huge thanks to Allen & Unwin Australia who sent me a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This novel came out on July 2nd, so this is a tidbit late but well worth it in my opinion.
First up, what is The Shut Ins about:
Mai and Hikaru went to school together in the city of Nagoya, until Hikaru disappeared when they were eighteen.
It is not until ten years later, when Mai runs into Hikaru’s mother, Hiromi Sato, that she learns Hikaru has become a hikikomori, a recluse unable to leave his bedroom for years. In secret, Hiromi Sato hires Mai as a ‘rental sister’, to write letters to Hikaru and encourage him to leave his room.
Mai has recently married J, a devoted salaryman with conservative ideas about the kind of wife Mai will be. The renewed contact with her old school friend Hikaru stirs Mai’s feelings of invisibility within her marriage. She is frustrated with her life and knows she will never fulfill J’s obsession with the perfect wife and mother.
What else is there for Mai to do but to disappear herself?The Shut Ins by Katherine Brabon – Goodreads
As mentioned above, the story begins with Mai running into her old school friend’s mother, Hiromi Sato. Set in Japan, the story actually began with an author’s note; one of many that pop throughout the novel to provide context, relief and another perspective about the author’s travels throughout Japan as she learns the stories of Mai, Hiraku and Hiromi. I’ll admit, the beginning of this book was rough for me. I’m not a huge fan of novels with detached narration, and almost poetry-like, blunt prose, so it took me a while to get used to this writing style. Although it certainly managed to evoke the world-building of Japan and the sense of feeling all the characters had throughout the novel and it did grow on me over time.
The Shut Ins grew on me more and more as it looked at the idea of ‘achiragawa’, an ‘other’ place that people look to reach for peace and how it connected with the Hikikomori of Japan; those who have become recluses and never come out of their rooms. There were so many themes that connected with this idea of ‘achiragawa’ and were so thought-provoking that in many ways, reading the accounts of the novel’s characters made me yearn for this ‘other side’ and understand how isolation and solitude can provide relief to others. All the character perspectives we encounter are enduring different societal pressures that are steeped into traditions, toxic gender roles and the idea of shame and punishment from non-conformity. It was a deep look into the somewhat unlikable Japanese culture hidden behind a mask and what kind of masks everyone in society can wear to maintain face. Although it’s important to note that Japanese culture isn’t unique in this way, and I can think of multiple societal pressures in different cultures (i.e Australian and Mauritian) from my own experiences.
We are obsessed with structure, maintaining order, we hold our breath for our whole lives…What would it mean, to be free of dependencies, the structures we have created?Katherine Brabon, The Shut Ins
While I didn’t personally enjoy reading some of the characters’ experiences, it was really interesting and profound. The prose grew on me after perhaps the first 80-100 pages and I began to crave the next time I picked up this book so I could continue flying through it. As Mai began to write letters to Hikaru to help him come out of his room, we also saw the author’s notes detailing her written relationship with a person referred to her from a friend; to the point that the author’s travel experiences connected to the character’s. It almost felt like an interesting journey that explored the author’s connection to the stories rather than focussing on the stories themselves. Part of what resonated with me most from this book was the idea of finding peace and reaching a place of contentment rather than a dream of happiness and success.
Some bonds are tied with skin; to break them you tear off parts of yourself. He said he wasn’t capable of such self-inflictions.Katherine Brabon, The Shut Ins
Many may not like the ending of this book, and it was one of the reasons this novel lost a star. Although I understand why it ended the way it did, I wish I had gotten more. The novel could have honestly been longer and I wanted to see more of each character. To be left wanting is, I guess, better than to be disappointed. This novel is also quite depressing, which is why it lost another star for me. Despite being a book that brings up really important themes and topics worth having many conversations with others about, it really was a sad story. I wish we had had more experience reading about ‘achiragawa’ itself and reaching this ‘other’ reality, to bring some positivity and light.
Overall, this novel felt like such a soul-searching, calming novel with a third person look at interconnected stories. It captivated me and presented a whole new world worth researching and exploring, as well as how we can look deeper within ourselves. If you’re up for a more serious, elegant and profound read, I’d recommend picking up The Shut Ins or at least looking into the Hikikomori of Japan.
Until next time,