September 30

The Shut Ins by Katherine Brabon

If there was a book symbolic of these pandemic times Readheads, it is this. The Shut Ins.

Right now, I’m coming to you from day 100 (or is it 1,000?) of lockdown. My hair deserves it’s own instragram account it’s that laughable, I’ve officially entered middle-age by buying a chest freezer to save all the slow braises I’ve made and I have read books like my sanity depended on it.

This one was a highlight of the lockdown monotony and it leaves a residue. As we like to say in the book-biz, The Shut Ins is a goodie.

If you’ve been to Japan, you know and appreciate life there is very, very different to all other countries; it’s full of unique rules and beguiling oddities that only belong to the Japanese. You simply couldn’t replicate them anywhere else. It’s a life steeped in deeply observed traditions coupled with the outrageous and titillating. Oh, to be back there.

So this story is about Japan and her idiosyncracies told through the lens of loneliness, desire and life as a hikikomori, a shut in, someone unable to leave their room.

The central characters are Mai and Hikaru who knew each other from school in Nagoya. They were friends but then one day when they were eighteen, Hikaru vanished.

Never truly reconciled over the disappearance, Mai matures, marries and assumes a traditional role with her conservative husband ‘J’. It’s an unfulfilling life that never feels right to her and then one day, ten years after last seeing Hikaru, she runs into his mother Hiromi Sato who reveals her son has been a hikikomori, a recluse unable to leave his bedroom for years. This discovery opens up a canyon inside Mai and she cannot shake the memory of Hikaru, or the tug to vanish herself, so starts visiting his home in the hope of seeing him.

After each visit, Hiromi Sato pushes an envelope of money into Mai’s hand – an act that makes her a ‘rental sister’ who has the job of writing letters to Hikaru to encourage him back to the outside world. With each letter, Mai comes closer to her escape.

The story moves between different characters – all either closely or loosely tied to Mai and Hikaru but they are woven together by a voice you assume is the author. These observations appear as Notes which introduce each chapter and tell of how she meets each of the people in the book and how a pivotal character referred to only as M brought her to Japan. It is a puzzle of sorts but very cleverly done. A work of literary art.

You’ll feel both relieved and perplexed at the end. You might think you know what happens to Hikaru and Mai, but you’ll be guessing.

Pick this one up Readheads because it’s Book Club Fodder for sure so fire up that zoom, pop on the hat to hide the nest on your head, pour that wine, defrost your beef bourguignon from your shiny chest freezer and get talking about The Shut Ins with your fellow shut ins. You won’t feel as alone I promise and you’ll be booking a ticket to Japan before you can say ‘more wasabi please’.

But that is just my two cents worth.