Review: Naoko by Keigo Higashino

Review: Naoko by Keigo Higashino

Naoko by Keigo Higashino

Naoko by Keigo Higashino

Imagine Hamlet’s unbelievable experience. He’s suffering. He’s lost his father. He’s cringing at his mother’s too-soon marriage to his uncle.

Into this scene walks the ghost of Hamlet’s father telling him that horror upon horrors his brother, the uncle-now-stepfather, dealt him. His brother murdered him and married his wife thus revenge must be taken. There stand Horatio and Hamlet in the mists of a winter’s night after the ghost has faded away.

Horatio: O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

Hamlet: And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

“Wondrous strange” like Hamlet is Naoko, Keigo Higashino’s novel of a father, mother and daughter. To bring Shakespearean language into more familiar terms, I’d say it’s weirdly troubling, supernaturally implausible and unusually odd, verging on repugnant.

Heisuke Sugita lived a simple life filled with love for his dear wife Naoko and sweet daughter Monomi until a tragic accident takes Naoko’s life and leaves Monomi in a coma. When the bus his wife and daughter rode in crashed, the mother threw herself upon her daughter thus saving her  life. When Monomi comes out of her coma, she is confused. She speaks with her mother’s mind, thoughts and memories. A transference at the time of Naoko’s death occurred from one to the other wherein the mother’s soul lives in strange harmony with her eleven year old daughter. Monomi can function in her youthful world as well as her mother’s domestic life.

In this tale of love, passion and sorrow there are mystifying occurrences.

Like Hamlet, Heisuke lives with a ghost from his past, his wife in his daughter’s body. Monomi cooks for her father/husband creating all of his favorite dishes with the expertise of Naoko. Long conversations engender philosophical discussions between Heisuke and the dual person of Naoko and Monomi. It’s as if he has lost neither his wife nor his daughter. 

However, Heisuke quickly becomes troubled. Monomi, in her mother’s voice, bemoans the lack of choice and equality in Japanese society. 

Even if she [a wife] comes to dislike her husband—and don’t misunderstand me, I’m speaking hypothetically—even if she doesn’t want to be with him anymore, she can’t leave because her future would be uncertain.

These words haunt Heisuke leading him to closely watch his daughter as a weird jealousy develops. At the same time, his daughter/wife wonders what new choices will lie before her with this second chance to live again: new friends, new knowledge and a new range of choices beyond any she imagined in her old incarnation as the obedient and pliable wife.

Higashino immediately became one of my favorite writers after I devoured his Detective Galileo mysteries, but this story I found disturbing and not particularly enjoyable.

The family life becomes stranger and stranger with an edge that nonetheless captured my thoughts. I couldn’t put Naoko down, but can’t say that I liked it. Many troubling aspects reared their ugly heads with the specter of incest looming. 

Despite this darkly-shadowed apprehension, I can only call out a kudos for excellent writing. Higashino’s work always focuses on character and plot while questioning motivation and societal constraints, so the writing simply works

I hesitate to recommend this book as it’s a twisted tale almost too bizarre for my taste, I admire the thoughtful commentary it provides on women’s role in Japan.

Intelligent insight into choices a woman had in the past and what she might do if given the opportunity to relive her life gave me pause for thought. Naoko, in her daughter’s body, has the knowledge of what limitations mean when a traditional path imposes itself on an individual’s free will and speaks forcefully of her regrets. 

I should have studied harder when I was younger… They say people try to live out their dreams through their children. I don’t know about you, but I had dreams for Monomi.

Dreams, regrets and complex relationships give the landscape of Higashino’s Noako a richness of thought. For readers comfortable with the many disturbing facets of this book and who can close it thinking about the intricacies of family and love without feeling troubled, it’s a fine book, classic Shakespearean tragedy. For those who feel uncomfortable with the same complexities, Naoko is a troubling read and will leave you exhausted from the emotional upheaval found within its pages.

{Buy Naoko on Amazon | BN | Book Depository}

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