What's Left of Me is Yours is one of those books that should come marked with some sort of disclaimer: "Warning: product may not quite live up to the extravagant promises made for it."
And they are extravagant - even in a publishing industry not exactly shy about hyping the bejeesus out of its merchandise, the promotional bumf for Stephanie Scott's debut novel feels excessive. The back cover is festooned with breathless praise, mostly from other authors, and there are a further three full pages inside. Words such as brilliant, luminous, virtuoso, exquisite, stunning - even masterpiece, which is a fairly bold assertion to make - are flung about with abandon.
Well, as the scientist Carl Sagan once said in another context, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof - so does What's Left of Me is Yours offer that proof? Not in my opinion, no; I can certainly appreciate why others may really like the book, but this rapturous acclaim is still baffling to me.
None of this is Scott's fault, in fairness, and she has produced a pretty decent piece of fiction, a more-than-solid first effort for a young writer. It's not a masterpiece, though, and daftly exaggerated claims like that do her and the book few favours. They set the bar of your expectations too high; disappointment is inevitably greater.
Anyway: What's Left of Me is Yours is based on a true story and involves a "wakaresaseya", one of those stranger-than-fiction aspects of Japanese life and culture that are endlessly fascinating to us because they feel so alien.
The word translates literally as "breaker-upper": people are hired to seduce someone so their spouse can then sue for divorce on the grounds of infidelity. It's right up there with pachinko parlours, Tamagotchi and vacuum-packed items of intimate apparel in the pantheon of intriguing Japanese wackiness - and it is a full-on industry in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Kaitarō, a wakaresaseya agent, is hired by Satō to do the needful with his wife Rina. Satō is a boorish weasel of a man, who married Rina for her father's money and now wants the freedom to pursue his old sweetheart. He's contemptuous of his wife, seeing her as a timid little frump who is boring him to death.
When Kaitarō begins his seduction, however, he quickly realises there's much more to Rina than this two-dimensional caricature. She's good-hearted and thoughtful, she's passionate when the relationship turns physical. She once had dreams of being a photographer - as did Kaitarō. Inexorably, they fall in love; the wakaresaseya agent's fake feelings become real.
The story actually begins with testimony from Sumiko, the daughter of Rina and Satō. We learn that, in the 1990s, Kaitarō was convicted of murdering Rina, but the full truth of her mother's death had been kept from Sumiko. Now a young woman, newly qualified as a lawyer, she starts to delve into this past, to better understand Rina, the man who killed her - and her own self.
The narrative then skips backwards and forwards, from Kaitarō and Rina's affair - and its tragically deadly consequences - to Sumiko's present-day investigations and distant memories of her childhood, much of it spent with Yoshida, her grandfather. This time-hopping is adroitly done, Scott intertwining different narratives with skill and clarity.
What's Left of Me is Yours makes some interesting observations on Japanese society too, especially their legal system - unsurprisingly, it's quite different to ours in some fundamental ways - but also the everyday details that are so important in constructing an immersive reading experience: the food, the apartments, how people interact, their habits and traditions, the way they navigate the unspoken rules and strictures inherent in any culture.
Where the novel badly falters is in the romance itself. This is the centre of the story, the molten emotional core at the heart of our fictional world. It should be something grand and immense and operatic, this amour fou that profoundly alters the course of several lives.
Instead it felt melodramatic - and not in the good sense of an entertaining soap opera or Jackie Collins-style bonkbuster - clichéd, implausible, unreal. I liked Rina and Kaitarō as people, I wished them well, but I never believed in them as a couple.
Interestingly, Scott - a writer of Singaporean and British ancestry - has received accolades and honours for the 10 years of research she put into this book, including being made a member of the British-Japanese Law Association. As mentioned, it is based on real-life events; I can't help wondering if the story wouldn't have been better served as a work of non-fiction.
As a novel, What's Left of Me is Yours left me a little cold: it's fine, no more than that. Then again, reading is a very subjective thing; the 20 or so authors who raved about this book clearly felt different to me, and you may well too.
Darragh McManus' books include 'Shiver the Whole Night Through' and 'The Polka Dot Girl'