Reviews I've seen of Keigo Higashino's book (and the successful Japanese movie adaptation) promised a drawn out disappointment: "Interesting premise, not fully utilised" and "Good for the first half... the rest kind draggy." Yet for me, this was one of the most nerve-touching stories I've read in a long time. (The second quote is particularly apt - it could actually be describing the kind of autobiography that the novel's main protagonist is given a unique opportunity to avoid.)
This "interesting premise" is actually the kind of daft idea that Hollywood has reworked a number of times in family comedies - the cross-generational soul-swap. But in this case there's a death involved, and factory worker Sugita Heisuke finds himself in very unusual domestic situation after his wife and daughter are involved in a bus crash. Ostensibly his wife has died, but when daughter Monami wakes from her coma, it's mother Naoko's pysche that is running her head and body ( with all the benefits and limitations thereof).
Once back at school she soon aspires to medical college, determined to avoid the complacency of her earlier existence. She and Heisuke try to preserve their union based on shared emotions, history, routines and the conspiracy built around their secret, but ultimately cracks appear when Monami's high school suitors start ringing in the night.
Naoko has elements of comedy and tragedy, both understated. Hence perhaps the dragginess for anyone whose own life has yet to encompass some of the poignant themes the author explores. I'm usually not that keen on suspending my disbelief in these cases of metempyschosis, I quickly realised that here it is just a device for selectively suspending other aspects of normality - Higashino has conceived the unlikely paranormal situation in order to explore the substance of ordinary life.
For many, adult life is about putting on a mask, while trying to keep our inner child alive for as long as possible. A lot of us suspect that we could have made a better job of our adolesence if only we'd known the stuff that we know now. The novel also asks that we consider how many of the everyday emotions we experience are conditioned by routines and expectations of the wider world (particularly gender-role expecations), and how sometimes even the least inclined to hypocrisy will be driven to it by ripples in their local pond.
In moving towards his destination Higashino passes around some of the obvious climaxes along the route- so we feel rather like passengers afforded a brief and distant glimpse of a city's sights as we go around the ring road. It's an interesting technique, and one I believe many screenwriters could do well to adopt. We don't necessarily need to see those predictable plot points, just sense their gravitational tug as we slip by. By skirting the obvious Higashino gives us something far more subtle.