Review: Naoko | an interesting yet hard to describe Japanese novel

naokoTitle: Naoko
Author: Keigo Higashino
Translator: Kerim Yasar
Published in August 2004 by Vertical
Rating: ★★★★ – really liked it

Winner of the Japan Mystery Writers Award, Naoko is a black comedy of hidden minds and lives. Navigating the interstices between the real and the unreal with perfect plot twists, this page-turner is also a critique of gender relations by a male Japanese writer, one of their best-selling.

An everyman, Heisuke works hard at a factory job to provide for his wife, Naoko, and young daughter, Monami. He takes pleasure from the small things, like breakfast with both of them after a night shift. His placid life is rocked when, looking up from his microwave dinner one evening, he realizes the TV news that he wasn’t paying attention to is reporting a catastrophic bus accident and the names of his loved ones.

When Monami finally wakes from a coma, she seems to think she’s Naoko, who has died protecting her daughter. More disturbingly, the girl knows things only Naoko could know. The family life that resumes between the modest man and a companion who looks like his daughter bu seems like his dead wife is ticklish-funny until it begins hurtling toward a soul-shattering end.

my thoughts on - review black (1)

I saw this book in my local library and thought it looked really interesting. I’m trying to read more books by foreign authors/translated books, and Naoko fit in perfectly with that goal. On the cover, it said that the author won the Japanese Mystery Writers Award with this novel which immediately drew my attention. After finishing the book, I honestly don’t understand why. Not because this book isn’t good – it really is – but because I wouldn’t describe this as a mystery novel at all. I really have no idea how to classify this book.

Naoko follows a family: Heisuke, a factory worker, Naoko, his wife, and Monami, their daughter. Heisuke works nights shifts every few weeks, and at the start of the novel he is eating his dinner with the TV on in the background when he notices the news reporter talk about a bus accident. The bus his wife and daughter were traveling on fell into a ravine, and there were very few survivors. Both Naoko and Monami have been taken to the hospital, and Heisuke rushes there as well. Naoko passes away almost immediately, but Monami wakes up in the hospital. Only she’s convinced she isn’t Monami at all, but Naoko instead. She knows things only his wife should know, but her body is that of their 11-year-old daughter.

That premise sounded incredibly intriguing to me. Would this be a supernatural type book? Or does Monami simply suffer from trauma which results in split personality disorder or PTSD?

What I loved most about this book is that it’s really unassuming, but raises a lot of questions at the same time. It made me think about what I would do in each of the characters’ positions. Heisuke’s wife has passed away, but not really. He doesn’t really mourn her, because her spirit and personality seems to be there anyways. Instead, they have to mourn their daughter, even though her body is still walking around the house every day. It’s an intriguing look at the different ways everyone grieves for lost loved ones.

At the same time, they are faced with a lot of questions. Should Naoko try to do her best and get high grades, make a lot of friends, so that if Monami’s spirit returns her life will be in order? Or will her daughter never return, and should she look at it as a second chance to live the life she never could? Should Heisuke move on and find a different partner, even though his wife is technically still there? There are so many aspects to consider in their new life, and I honestly don’t know how I would handle it.

I loved the way Naoko seemed to try her best to live the life she never could. She got incredibly high grades, got on the career track that was closed to her before, and made new friends. She wanted to be a woman who didn’t have to rely on her husband later, something she regrettably wasn’t before.

I loved how Heisuke tried to support her, while struggling with his feelings at the same time. He wanted her to have a good life, or their daughter to have a good life if she came back, but was also saddened to know his wife wasn’t truly happy in their life together.

This novel is truly a character study. A glimpse at the lives of a family so completely overthrown after an accident. We follow their family for quite a few years, as Monami/Naoko is a grown-up woman by the end of it. The novel is quite short, yet manages to portray a significant amount of years without making it seem fleeting at all.

What I didn’t like about the book is the focus on Heisuke’s sexual life and health, while completely ignoring that of Naoko. Since we’re in Heisuke’s head, we frequently witness him masturbate (I made that sound really weird, sorry) and deal with the conflicting feelings of his wife now being a child, and the teacher he really likes. That teacher thing came out of nowhere, by the way, and really grossed me out. I could have done with less focus on his sex life. On the other hand, I wish it would’ve explored that of Naoko more. She’s an adult woman, yet is now stuck in the body of a pre-pubescent child. Surely, that must cause conflicting feelings since her mind has been ready for and enjoying sex for years, but her body is now incapable of doing so.

Overall, I found this novel absolutely fascinating. Aside from the one downside mentioned before, I was hooked by this family’s story. The synopsis mentions a soul-shattering ending, and it is definitely not kidding. I couldn’t believe the author ended the story there! Is it a trend nowadays to withhold answers from the audience?

If this premise sounds at all interesting to you, I would highly encourage you to pick this book up. It’s a fascinating look in to the life of a family whose reality has been turned upside down, and the ways they find to deal with it. While I wouldn’t categorize this as a mystery novel whatsoever, I do understand why it won an award. I’m so grateful my library had a copy of this, and that I came across it randomly. I’ll probably see whether the author has any other translated works as well. 

5 thoughts on “Review: Naoko | an interesting yet hard to describe Japanese novel

  1. This sounds like such an unusual read, especially the fact that Naoko is now an adult in a child’s body and what that would do to her relationship with her husband. I really enjoy Japanese literature and I like slice-of-life character studies, so I might look out for this one in the future. Great review!


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