~written by Keigo Higashino
~translated by Kerim Yasar
1999 Mystery Writers of Japan Award
In 1998, Keigo Higashino wrote Himitsu, or The Secret. The novel won him the 1999 Mystery Writers of Japan Award. In 2004, the English translation by Kerim Yasar was published by Vertical under the title Naoko, making it the first major work by Higashino to be made available in English. Relatively recently, I read an thoroughly enjoyed one of his other award-winning novels, The Devotion of Suspect X. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I knew I wanted to read more of Higashino’s work. There is a reason that he is so well loved as an author in Japan—his stories are not only entertaining, but have some depth to them as well. Since only two of Higashino’s works are currently available in English, obviously Naoko would be the next one for me to read. I truly hope more of his works are translated because I still haven’t gotten my fill of Higashino.
Since he regularly works night shifts at the factory, Heisuke Sugita doesn’t always get to spend as much time with his wife Naoko and their eleven-year-old daughter Monami as he would like but they make a happy family. And then tragedy strikes. While Heisuke stayed home to work, the bus in which Naoko and Monami were travelling to visit relatives was driven off a cliff. Naoko’s body dies, but somehow her personality lives on in the body of Monami and Monami's mind no longer seems to exist. Heisuke and Naoko begin a strange new life together, keeping the personality switch a secret from everyone else. Naoko takes the opportunity to relive her life for and as Monami, making up for past regrets. Heisuke, on the other hand, is more conflicted; Naoko is now in some way both his wife and his daughter. People believe he is grieving over the death of Naoko, but really his loss is much more complicated than that.
I actually think I liked Naoko even better than I did The Devotion of Suspect X. Part of this is due to the fact that, unlike in The Devotion of Suspect X, the reader has the opportunity to really get to know the heart and mind of one of the characters. In this case, since the novel is told completely from his perspective, it is Heisuke Sugita, a very normal and potentially boring husband and father. However, he finds himself in some extraordinary and unusual circumstances with little guidance on how to deal with them. It is fascinating to watch this admittedly average guy work through things to the best of his ability and see how the odd situation changes him over time. Heisuke is not perfect, in fact he can be an utter asshole at times, but when it gets right down to it, he’s a good person. He doesn’t handle everything well by any means, but that’s what makes him feel real as a character. The situation he finds himself in is certainly strange and bizarre but his characterization is so strong, I can’t imagine him behaving any differently.
The back cover describes Naoko as “black comedy.” While the setup does cause some humorous and amusing encounters, I had a hard time approaching the novel as a comedy. Instead, it felt to me more like a meditation on love, loss, longing, and letting go. Higashino is often considered to be primarily a mystery author, winning many awards in the genre in addition to the one he received for Naoko. However, Naoko is different from the sort of mystery novels most typically seen in the United States--at least in my experience. Heisuke isn’t some brilliant investigator (Higashino even calls him "altogether lame" in an interview); he’s just a normal person who wants to figure out what’s going on and why. Eventually, he must learn to accept his circumstances. There is both humor and mystery in Naoko, but first and foremost it is simply a well told and engaging story. At times tragic and heartbreaking, it is a very satisfying novel and I’m very glad to have read it.