The Shut Ins by Katherine Brabon

‘It is possible to create a whole hypothetical life of mistakes and consequences.’

The story unfolds over four notes, interconnecting the lives of four people, shared with us by the narrator:

‘I was in Japan alone when the story of Mai Takeda came to me. I don’t know where she is now—others’ stories only rest with us for a short time—so this is all I know from less than one year of her life.’

Mai and Hikaru went to school together in the Japanese city of Nagoya. Mai was one of the few people friendly with Hikaru, but she lost contact with him. Hikaru disappeared when they were eighteen. Ten years later and recently married, Mai runs into Hikaru’s mother, Hiromi. Mai learns that Hikaru has become a hikikomori, has withdrawn from society and has been unable to leave his bedroom for some years. Hiromi hires Mai to write to Hikaru, to encourage him to leave his room. Mai herself is struggling with the expectations of her husband and parents. And then Mai disappears.

‘Questions remained and they stalked me: is there no other side, is there no other way to live a life?’

The first note, from Winter to Spring 2014 is about Mai. The second note, from Spring to Summer 2014 is about Sadako. Sadako is a hostess, paid by Mai’s husband to serve him. He talks to her about Mai, about his discontent. The third note is about Hiromi, about the guilt and despair she feels that Hikaru will not leave his room. And it all becomes complicated when Hiromi needs to take care of her elderly mother in another city.

‘What god could comprehend this profoundly modern situation in which a grown child has moved as if back into the womb?’

And in the fourth note, we finally hear from Hiraku.

This is an intriguing novel, taking us through different reactions to the weight of expectations. Hiraku retreats from the world early: difference is neither desired nor accepted. Sadako gives us some insight into Mai’s husband’s requirements, while Hiromi bears the weight of Hiraku’s failure. Mai knows she cannot meet the expectations of her husband and parents, and she also disappears.

There is no neat ending to this story/these stories, just a reminder that roles for these four people are rigid and non-compliance with societal expectations is deemed failure. I can understand the desire to withdraw, to disappear rather than try to fit in. But is it ever possible to be completely separate from society? Hiraku may choose to stay in his room, but his mother still arranges his food and to wash his clothing.

An unusual novel, full of issues to contemplate.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith