Katherine Brabon’s “The Shut Ins,” which was released by Australian publisher Allen & Unwin in July, chiefly takes place in Japan in 2014. However, the subject matter is particularly poignant now as we enter the third year of the pandemic, throughout which many of us have experienced social isolation and an unprecedented lack of control over our lives.

The Shut Ins, by Katherine Brabon
256 pages

The book is split into four sections, each centering on one protagonist: Hikaru, a young man living as a recluse in his parents’ home; his mother Hiromi; his childhood friend Mai, who re-enters Hikaru’s life soon after her marriage; and Sadako, a bar hostess who is drawn into a relationship with Mai’s husband after he turns to her for solace. While the female characters maintain a semblance of normality on the surface, all three feel trapped by societal pressure and, like Hikaru, spend a lot of time pondering their existence. In the last of the four sections, which focuses on Hikaru, Brabon offers a firsthand account of living as a hikikomori, people who experience acute social withdrawal and isolate themselves for months or years on end.

The author ties these four stories together by drawing on the idea of achiragawa (the other side), a term she came across in a study on Haruki Murakami’s work to describe how his characters escape the present and enter their subconscious. Brabon’s style, however, is reminiscent of novelist Banana Yoshimoto, with vivid descriptions of the minutiae of daily life and narratives driven by the characters’ thoughts and dreams as much as by physical action.

This picture of contemporary Japanese family life is not a particularly happy one; each of the main characters feel they are failing their spouses, parents or children. Even though the troubled Hiromi expresses her love for her reclusive son, their relationship is fraught with bouts of domestic abuse.

In an interview earlier this year, Brabon said she did not employ the services of a sensitivity reader — an editor who provides feedback on inaccuracies or stereotypes. This seems a bold decision for an Australian who does not speak Japanese and whose experiences in Japan are limited to two visits in 2014 and 2017, but she demonstrates her deep knowledge and respect for the country’s history, literature and philosophy in the various references she has woven into her novel.

Brabon prefaces each section with semi-autobiographical notes, but this technique tends to distract from the story, leaving the reader searching for connections that ultimately lead to dead ends. The voices of the four protagonists are strong enough to stand on their own, and this is where the novel shines. Although the novel could have benefited from a more nuanced look at the lives of contemporary Japanese women, beyond the traditional roles of wife and mother, each character’s story is compelling and engaging.

Overall, this thought-provoking book transcends cultural barriers, laying bare the raw emotions of loneliness and the desire for something more — even when we are not really sure what we are longing for.

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