By Christine Yunn-Yu Sun
This week, Christine Yunn-Yu Sun reviews The Shut Ins by Katherine Brabon
If you enjoy Haruki Murakami’s books – not just Norwegian Wood and 1Q84 but also After Dark and South of the Border, West of the Sun – then you will probably find Katherine Brabon’s The Shut Ins equally mesmerising.
This is a quiet book to be read alone, late at night, without even the company of a warm cuppa. It is the only way to become fully immersed in the story’s atmosphere. The book begins with the nameless first-person narrator arriving in Japan to study the word achiragawa, which means “to be over there” or “to be on the other side”.
It can be an inner world, “the world that is just yours, [where] you are alive with possibility”. Specifically: “When it is a great effort to conform to the norms of a human day, to speak and live in the structures we have created, you are feeling the pull of achiragawa. It is physically absent; it is wonderful and perilous for the mind.”
To illustrate this, the narrator shares the stories of four people. The first is Mai, who once befriended Hikaru. Years later, when Mai discovers that Hikaru has become a hikikomori, a recluse unable to leave his bedroom, she tries to lead him back to normal life.
Mai has recently married a hard-working salaryman named J, and is now under pressure to stop working and have children. Feeling increasingly invisible in her marriage, Mai realises she can never become the kind of perfect wife that J wants.
Meanwhile, thanks to his frequent business trips to Tokyo, J finds Sadako, a bar hostess. Although she is used to entertaining businessmen with endless drinks, dazzling smiles and friendly conversations, Sadako agrees to be a “fake wife” to J for one day – not just to please him, but also to experience a life that she wants but can never have.
Next, we meet Hiromi, who has cared for her son Hikaru for ten years without seeing him
even once. Now that her own mother is ill, Hiromi reflects on life’s numerous pressures that she and her son have both had to endure.
And, finally, we get to hear Hikaru’s voice. As much as Hiromi’s story is heart-wrenching – “coward son, she loves him” – Hikaru’s is one of informed and deliberate choice, of choosing solitude. In his words:
“Everyone moves constantly; they are hurrying, waiting, they are wanting things. They judge others because they think it is a shield from being judged themselves. They criticise and yell, or they are silent, full of looking. People are heavy with time, clothes, manners, structures. In my room, I had escaped to the other side. It was lighter. I did not have to wear a mask. I was just myself.”
The Shut Ins is a powerful and thought-provoking book. Though set in Japan, the story is universal, as we have all experienced that yearning to be alone rather than lonely, to shed our responsibilities, obligations and even privileges – to be free.