Keigo Higashino (author), Kerim Yasar (translator), Naoko, Vertical, 2004. 288 pgs.
Perhaps it is his engineering background that makes Keigo Higashino a great writer, with his masterful ability to engineer intricate plots that frame mind-bending mysteries. His craft in plot-making is why he has countless works that have been adapted for TV dramas and movies in both Japan and Korea. It seems his stories are just too good to not be made into screenplays that are just as equally good. His standalone novel Naoko, his first work to be translated to English, has both film and television adaptations in Japan, not to mention also being a winner of the Japan Mystery Writers Award at the time of its original publication.
Although Naoko isn’t as intricate as, say, Journey Under the Midnight Sun is in terms of plot, Higashino downplays the mystery aspect of the story in lieu of melodrama and poignancy, indeed proving his versatility as an author. While his novels aren’t known for literary depth and being more famous for his detective mysteries, Higashino goes on an excursion by working with a supernatural concept as his premise while keeping one foot within his mystery niche.
A middle-aged man Heisuke Sugita has his ordinary and quiet life rocked when he sees a television news report about a fatal accident involving a Nagano-bound bus his wife Naoko and daughter Monami had boarded. Everyone on board was killed except for Monami, who is in a coma. When she wakes up, she seems to have taken on her mother’s spirit—Monami mysteriously has Naoko’s memory and mind. Essentially, Naoko has taken over Monami’s body. Heisuke and Naoko become confused, living double lives as husband-and-wife in private, and as father-and-daughter in public. Meanwhile, Heisuke one day runs into Seiko Kajikawa, the bus driver’s wife, leading him to pursue the truth behind their family. It’s not a Higashino novel without a mystery to unfurl.
In essence, the novel focuses on Naoko’s “second go” at life, as she starts anew in a prepubescent body but carrying on her grownup wisdom. As a mother, she tries to live as fully as Monami would have wanted by pursuing a career as a doctor. There are quite a number of laughs as she and Heisuke come to grips with the new dynamic of their relationship as a couple. Eventually, they begin to struggle, first with the lack of physical intimacy. Naoko reaches Monami’s adolescent years while attending a co-ed high school, further straining her relationship with Heisuke as she starts a habit of coming home late and even flirts with a boy. Heisuke is left in a painful conflict having to choose between being a loving father or a loving husband to one person. It’s quite surprising for a mystery novel to evolve into such a touching story with tender moments and that’s exactly what has been achieved here.
Even though the melodrama lasts all the way to the late stages, the story goes full-circle at the end. Without giving away too much, an unassuming clue to the whole puzzle is the novel’s original title in Japanese, Himitsu (秘密), meaning “secret.” While the novel revolves around the character Naoko, at its very core is secrecy. Although the whole business of Naoko’s soul living in Monami’s body is an openly established secret between her and Heisuke, there’s a far less obvious one that brings a shock conclusion to the story. Higashino baits the reader with incredible misdirection in a similar fashion to the way he did in The Devotion of Suspect X.
Keigo Higashino is a true master of the Japanese mystery novel. In Naoko, he proves that he can do away with the usual affair of crime, genius professors, and detectives that most of his readers grew fond of. He exhibits versatility and stays true to his roots by delivering a tear-jerker and a mind-bender in one package.
Two new Higashino novels, Newcomer and The Name of the Game is Kidnapping are scheduled for release this year. The former is part of the Detective Kaga series (Malice) while the latter is a standalone. He’s a prolific writer in Japan yet only has six novels translated to English at the time of writing, so I’m anticipating the pair. While I wait, I might go check out those film and TV adaptations of his works.