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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Higashino Keigo

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To purchase Naoko

Title: Naoko
Author: Higashino Keigo
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 282 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Naoko - US
Naoko - UK
Naoko - Canada
Naoko - India
La seconda vita di Naoko - Italia
  • Japanese title: 秘密
  • Translated by Kerim Yasar
  • Naoko was made into a movie in 1999 under its original Japanese title, Himitsu, directed by Yojiro Takita

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting premise, not fully utilised

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Naoko has an unsettling premise: Heisuke Sugita's wife and daughter are involved in a catastrophic bus accident. Both initially survive, but Naoko dies in hospital. Except that she doesn't: in an inexplicable transference it is Monami's body that survives, but Naoko's soul and memories and personality that now inhabit it.
       Heisuke is, of course, stunned by this. (So is, presumably, his wife, but the novel gives only Heisuke's perspective, and only what is conveyed to him (by Naoko-in-Monami) -- not much -- is revealed to the reader.) The two of them decide to keep this strange occurrence a secret. Heisuke makes a half-hearted attempt to look up some information in the library, but otherwise they don't even bother to consult a doctor and just live with the new situation. Everyone sees a father and his daughter (ready to start the sixth grade), but in that pre-teen body is the mind and soul of an adult woman.
       They can no longer live as man and wife, of course -- but they're not fit to act as father and daughter either. The question of their relationship -- and especially that -- is presumably particularly complicated:

     "What are we going to do ? You know. About that."
     "About what ?"
     "That. You know. Doing it."
       Unfortunately, Higashino doesn't dare consider this very uncomfortable question too closely, here or later -- though it does come up again -- and like many of the other complications it is a bit too easily swept aside. Communication between the two is somewhat limited, and since the novel only offers Heisuke's perspective, the reader doesn't get a very good sense of what is going on in Naoko's mind as it suddenly finds itself in Monami's body. Heisuke also isn't one to pry too much -- unless it means going behind Naoko-Monami's back (which, of course, does wonders for their relationship) -- and one of the most surprising aspects of the novel is how much life continues almost as normal.
       One thing that does change is that Naoko-Monami becomes very ambitious, eager to take advantage of this second chance. She applies herself to her schoolwork, studies hard, aims for the toughest schools. She doesn't want to wind up a mere housewife again.
       The focus of the story isn't even entirely on this incredible mind-body problem. Much space and time is also devoted to some of the other consequences of the crash. Several meetings of the association of survivors (and kin of the victims) -- to coordinate action against the bus company and agree on a financial settlement -- are also described; eventually the Sugita's get quite a bit of money as compensation, though not much is made of that. The wife of the bus driver who caused the accident also plays a recurring role, as Heisuke is curious about what led to the accident, and then shows some interest in the bus driver's own complicated family affairs.
       The novel begins with a close description of events, but then skips ahead, months and even years at a time. Too easily Heisuke and Naoko-Monami adjust to their roles -- with the exception of how they call each other (too often they forget that Naoko-Monami is supposed to be the young girl Monami and not Heisuke's mature wife when others are around). Every now and then, the question again crops up of whether they should live as (platonic) husband and wife, or should go their more separate ways as father and daughter. When boys show more interest in Naoko-Monami this gets even more complicated.
       Ultimately, Higashino resolves this cleverly and quite well, but the way he gets there is occasionally awkward, and for most of the book he really doesn't do enough with the premise the story is based on. Surprisingly, the book is more successful in the picture of Japanese society it offers. Not only the role-play in family life (which is central to the book), but also more generally: from Heisuke's inability to cook for himself to the significance of formal apology (for everything from late telephone calls to the bus company's apology to the victims) to Heisuke's job and Monami's school-life, Naoko provides a solid panorama of Japanese life.
       Unevenly paced, with a good deal left out that would surely be of interest to readers (Naoko-Monami's perspective, first and foremost -- what's going on in her mind), and some not entirely successful incidental stories, Naoko is just interesting enough to hold the reader's attention throughout. Some of the descriptions and events -- and the frustrating unwillingness of father and daughter-wife to communicate, i.e. really talk things out -- can get quite annoying, and there's little subtlety. Even the good final twist is undermined by how Heisuke (and the reader) learn of it: "All she said was that I wasn't supposed to tell you, under any circumstances" someone tells Heisuke, right after having immediately blabbed.
       A good overview of daily life in Japan, and modestly interesting speculative fiction based on an absurd premise. But if an author bases a book on such a premise, he should also be more daring with it.

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Naoko: Reviews: Himitsu - the movie: Other books by Higashino Keigo under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Higashino Keigo (東野圭吾) was born in 1958.

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