The Shut Ins by Katherine Brabon

Reviewed by E. B. Heath

Loneliness

Seeping into the rock

Cicada’s voice

Matsuo Basho

Understanding yourself is hard enough but within the confines of a rigid culture, it becomes an exercise in excavation. It takes considerable effort to separate out deep inner aspirations and emotions from the norms of a culture and language in which we have been immersed since birth.  After all, it is culture and language that organises our world; a world that we accept as reality, and in the main defines us. Katherine Brabon’s latest novel, The Shut Ins, examines the intersection of the deeply personal with unrelenting Japanese cultural expectations, in so doing, she investigates the hikikomori and the concept of achiragawa.

 Hikikomori is the name given to those who choose to withdraw from society; they might live as reclusive monks, or, go on long solitary journeys, or, as many do, just stay in their bedrooms, refusing to participate in society or even family life.  These people are said to be dwelling on the other side, this ‘place’ is known as achiragawa.

Ideas of achiragawa range broadly, encompassing dreams, or part of the unconscious mind, a private inner life, deepest unspoken beliefs, or a feeling of heightened possibility.  For some, it resonates with the spiritual, the location of Gods and of the dead.  These feelings can be triggered when a person has the sense of being frozen in their cultural reality.  To quote Brabon: 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.  This is particularly the case within a communal culture, where the group is of heightened importance; individuals do not have the space to create a life that corresponds to their needs. Only in recent times has it been possible, in any culture, to organise sexuality according to preference, even the very personal is structured by cultural norms.

Brabon’s Japanese friend commented that she only saw herself through the mirror of other people; this is known in Japan as amae, a harmonious dependence on another person.  Her friend created a geographical achiragawa and moved to Europe to separate herself from cultural expectations.  This brings to mind the seventeenth century Japanese poet, Bashõ, who outmanoeuvred unhappiness by going on a journey. (Brabon does briefly touch on Bashõ in the latter part of the novel.) In his case becoming famous on the way for writing beautiful haiku poetry.  In his haiku, he created mental and emotional journeys into nature, capturing in words other worldly perspectives. Perhaps the hikikomori and the concept of achiragawa have deep traditional roots, acting as a pressure valve for a rigid society.  Although the 700,000 people currently locked away in bedrooms does not quite fulfil the romance of going on a picturesque journey, unless of course they are reading Bashõ.

Brabon explores these concepts within the lives of four Japanese characters. Interestingly, woven into the novel is an account of Brabon’s thoughts during her solitary journey throughout Japan.  Her only company at this time takes the form of emails with a Japanese gentleman, Murakami, living in America. He helps Brabon as a westerner to identify with achiragawa and the hikikomori.

Each character’s perspective is presented in separate chapters. As are the email communications with Murakami, some of which are quite profound regarding modern society.

Mai Takeda is the first character we meet.  She has recently married J, along with all the expectations of a young wife, mainly to supply her husband with children, look after his every need, and, of course, not have a career of her own. J is suited to his role as a salary man, he has no problems with cultural expectations, believing individual whims and weaknesses are emotional and unhelpful.  Mai’s aloneness is palpable; her character illustrates being frozen within cultural expectations.  She unexpectedly meets Mrs. Hiromi Satõ, the mother of an old school friend, Hikaru.  He was an unusual boy who never fitted into his environment and who is now a hikikormori, never leaving his bedroom.  She asks Mai to visit her and to write to Hikaru hoping he will be enticed back into society.  Mrs. Satõ lives with her husband in a functional, rather than intimate, relationship; a life of transactional communications.  Her husband tells Mrs. Satõ that it is her job to fix Hikaru.   Sadako is a hostess in a Tokyo bar where she meets J.  Sadako for her part is isolated in a life she does not want, as she listens to J, she empathizes with his wife.

Within the lives of these characters, Brabon explores how duty can be a pressure that is too much to bear, resulting in isolation and the desire for another life, but also the fear of taking the steps to escape. This is skilfully accomplished; Brabon gives the reader a personal encounter with achiragawa, which to my mind is the whole purpose of a novel – to give readers a glimpse into another world.  Although featuring Japanese culture, which provides a clear picture of a cultural cage, this text clears a space to evaluate the pressures of other cultures.

This thoughtful, multilayered narrative reveals psychological and social insights applicable to all cultures – an altogether intriguing read.

The Shut Ins

By Katherine Brabon

(July 2021)

Allen & Unwin

ISBN:978 17608 7974 7

$29.99; 256pp

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