Rintaro Natsuki is a hikikomori. That term describes young adults who live at home with their parents and who have withdrawn from work, school, clubs, or anything else outside of the house.
It can be triggered by social anxiety, depression, academic pressure, bullying, depression, and other related anxiety disorders. It is not exclusive to Japan. Here is a link to an article about Italian Hikikomori.
Social anxiety and pressure to perform can cause anyone to withdraw. The question is for how long.
In this book, Rintaro, a high school student, has had a lot to deal with. His parents separated when he was a baby. His father does not play a role in the story. His mom died when he started primary school, and so he went to live with one of his grandfathers. And after some years of combining school and working in his grandfather’s secondhand bookshop, tragedy strikes again as the grandfather dies.
At the funeral, the quiet student sees his family disappear, all the rituals and routines that ruled his life are gone, he feels his life ebb away, and he does not know how to swim to shore. There is an aunt who is willing to take Rintaro in. She arranges his move and takes care of all the paperwork involved. Rintaro is a minor and with his grandfather gone, all kinds of documentation must be sorted. She steps in. The question is, is Rintaro ready to join her life in her house in a new city? He is not.
Rintaro struggles to show emotions and frankly, he does not know how to grief. He is wondering what the appropriate way is to grief for a grandparent and withdraws further into an already existing shell.
The legacy of his grandfather goes beyond leaving him the bookshop. Rintaro does not see it immediately, but the shop has a stellar reputation as did his grandfather and he is amazed to discover that he has one too. The books are not just used books. They cover a spectrum most secondhand bookshops do not, so it is a to-go-to for those looking for rare editions.
Rintaro makes the epic mistake of making life-changing decisions during times of immense pain and grief. He holds a closing sale and is halfheartedly committed to closing and selling the shop.
Always having considered himself to be invisible, the one nobody would notice if missing, he is astounded when one of the popular boys, smart, and a basketball player, gives him his deepest sympathy for the loss of his grandfather. That alone Rintaro would be able to manage but this young man, Ryota Akiba, calls him a friend and tells him that there are many people at school who worry about him. Why would they, that is what Rintaro thinks. To top off the confusion, Sayo Yuzuki stops by. They have known each other since primary school and are not particularly close but, she drops off his homework and handouts after school.
Rintaro must deal with his grief, find out if he really is as socially isolated that he cannot ask anyone for help, and make up his mind. Where does he go from here? With an aunt who cares and is good of heart, but he never met her before or, does he become independent and remain in his grandfather’s house and shop?
With this much to ponder, Rintaro withdraws further and for lack of a better word, feels he is frozen. Frozen in time. Cannot go back, obviously, cannot move on either. And then the cat appears. “A furry coat, bushy tail, two piercing green eyes, and two neat triangular ears.” His name is Tiger. Tiger, the Tabby.
Tiger needs Rintaro’s help to save books. Who better to have in your corner than a proprietor of a secondhand bookshop who knows not just a lot about books but one who loves books. Together they explore several labyrinths in which books are at risk.
Of course, all the labyrinths are metaphors, but it is not as simple as that. Yes, the Tabby is working in mysterious ways to help Rintaro sort out his feelings, force him to discover his strengths, and his own vision about himself, the world, and his future. But when the last labyrinth has been conquered one more hurdle must be taken, and Rintaro is forced to look into a mirror to relive, resort, and reprioritize what he just went through.
This book by Sosuke Natsukawa cannot get enough praise and reviews. I would like to encourage you to check out the author’s work, the cover artist, the cover designer, and the translator. I am adding their links here for convenience.
Author: Sosuke Natsukawa
Cover Art: Yuko Shimizu
Cover Design: Stephen Brayda
Translator: Louise Heal Kawai
Highly recommended reading for anyone who loves books, who likes to think about how our society has changed, and of course, for anyone who loves a brave cat who stepped in when a young person needed guidance. My other book reviews are here.