Affecting, unsettling, and heartbreaking, Naoko is one of those books that lingers with you long after you flip the last page.
Naoko is a story of everyman Heisuke Sugita, whose life is utterly discombobulated when his wife Naoko and 10-year old daughter Monami are caught in a horrific bus accident. Naoko is seemingly killed, while Monami survives unscathed physically. But when Monami wakes up, she has the psyche and memories of Naoko.
What ensues is an odd family drama – where Naoko, resigned to living Monami’s childhood for her, has to deal with her second childhood, while Heisuke grapples with the fact that his wife is now his daughter. The novel is an exploration of how such an uncanny arrangement might ensue.
Keigo Higashino is known for his hardboiled detective thrillers, and my reading of Naoko was somewhat coloured by my knowledge of this – it was, for the most part, tinged with the tension of wondering when things might become lurid – but, thankfully, it doesn’t. Higashino does have some mystery elements into the mix, notably in Heisuke’s investigation into the circumstances of the bus accident, which leads him down some minor lines of inquiry, but for the most part, it’s an emotional portrait of normal people trying to live in the wake of something extraordinary.
Its an intriguing conceit that Higashino handles well in his workmanlike, matter-of-fact style. Heisuke is the portrait of a 1980s salaryman; well-intentioned but somewhat insecure in himself and in his relationship with his wife, now in their daughter’s body, leading him to do some less-than-salutary things in his attempts to preserve some status quo in their family life. His struggle is that of a father letting go of a daughter whom he has cherished to live her own life, with the added complication that she is, in some essential way, his wife. Naoko-as-Monami, on her part, uses her new circumstances as a chance to define a new identity for herself that is removed from her previous happy but cloistered existence as doting housewife and mother. In doing so, she necessarily tugs away from the orbit circumscribed by Heisuke’s place in her life.
In this sense, Naoko has often been called a meditation on gendered politics in Japan, but it’s also about parenthood and letting go. For the most part, Naoko handles this with sensitivity, treating both Heisuke and Naoko sympathetically. While they do hurt each other, it seems inevitable as part of their exceptional circumstances. Essentially, they come off as real people.
Naoko was an unputdownable read all the way through, even given its domestic setting, wending its way to a truly heartrending denouement that felt at once inevitable, yet also unbearably melancholic. Rare is the book that makes me feel the way I felt reading the second last chapter of Naoko. And yet, after that wallop of a false ending, Higashino still has one more trick up his sleeve – he throws us a twist in the end, so unexpected yet so apropos, a twist that adds a final zest of mystique and intrigue into the concluding chapters of this utterly unconventional domestic drama.
I give this book: 5/5 teddy bears