The Guest Cat – Takashi Hiraide

Now you know all know that I love cats don’t you? To the point where if I could I would probably buy a new kitten every few weeks, though I don’t think Oscar and Millie would be too pleased as they barely tolerate each other unless it is very cold. Despite this love of cats I can’t say I am one of those people, not that I am judging them mind, who would rush out to by The Adventures of Tibbles the Cat Who Saved My Life When I Was Stuck in a Pothole in 1993, yes I made that up – it could sell though! They just aren’t my bag. And yes, I made that title up. Therefore I wasn’t sure The Guest Cat would be my cup of tea but last Sunday morning I fancied something short and so picked it up after I had been sent it from the publishers (possibly because of my outward seemingly cat lady tendencies) and what I found was possibly my perfect version of ‘a cat book’.

Picador Books, paperback, 2014, novella, 144 pages, translated by Eric Selland, kindly sent by the publisher

The story of The Guest Cat is really a very simple one. A couple, both who are writers, find the dream rental spot hidden away, down a lightening like street, from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. This small house, in the grounds of a bigger house owned by an elderly couple, is the perfect retreat to work in solitude yet soon they have a visitor in the form of the neighbour’s cat, who they soon learn is named Chibi. Initially flighty and aloof (well always aloof like the best of cats) Chibi starts to visit more and more regularly and little by little becomes a small companion to the couple and in the smallest of ways has a more and more positive effect on their lives.

In essence that is the book. Only it isn’t.

You see this novella is also so much more when you read between the lines and look a little further, or even if you don’t and it goes in subconsciously. In a rather silent and stealthy manner, creeping up on you (this is the only cat analogy I will make, promise) The Guest Cat actually features a plethora of themes and insights into the world of Tokyo in the 1980’s. The first, and possibly the least interesting yet still insightful, is the housing market in Tokyo when the city was almost out pricing itself (the slightly boring bit) but also losing all of its green spaces and heritage/traditional housing in favour of building big new modern  condominiums or swanky business pads (I found this side of it really interesting).

The second thing it looks at, which I found actually as moving as the story of how this couple befriends Chibi, is how it is to grow old which we see through the landlords in the bigger house. How do you cope as you age and become frailer? How do you look after a loved one they age and you age too? How do you cope with their death and then prepare for the inevitability of your own? I found a real poignancy in that.

The Guest Cat also treads that thin line between autobiography and fiction. As this is a story by an author about two authors (and indeed Takashi Hirade’s wife is a writer so hence the autobiographical link) and the life of the writer and of course the writing process. I always like this element when I come across it in a book as I find the process of writing really interesting, be it what hinders it or what inspires it. So again more layers, not just a book about a pretty cute if elusive cat.

Oh and without giving anything away get ready for an ending which leaves you with a big question, and a mystery, that might have you heading back to the beginning again.

The Guest Cat is one of those books which one the one hand is a very simple tale but can also be read in a multitude of ways and probably needs to be read a few times, especially with the ending I have alluded to above. You can of course, like every book, just read it for the story which is touching and beguilingly simplistic. In essence, like Chibi when she visits her adopted-when-the-needs-arise owners, it is a book that makes us look at life and try and appreciate the intricate and subtle nuances that sometimes we over look, take for granted or simply forget. It is a little gem*.

*I am not going to start reading lots of cat books though, just sharing that with you before they all start arriving.

23 Comments

Filed under Books in Translation, Picador Books, Review, Takashi Hiraide

23 responses to “The Guest Cat – Takashi Hiraide

  1. sharkell

    I’m reading this with my cat on my lap and he is telling me to go and buy this book!

  2. I think I need to find myself this one! Having a sweet spot for Japanese literature as well as cats, I’ll be serching the local book store very soon I think.

  3. Nick

    Interesting how your 2 cats barely tolerate each other, this program is fascinating and well worth watching.
    http://www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/episodes/the-lion-in-your-living-room

  4. I’m in two minds about whether to read this one or not. Im not a cat person (I like them but dont love them, if you get my drift) but Im fascinated by the idea the novel(la?) explores ideas Im interested in, such as urban change, loss of green space and caring for the elderly…

    • I think you might like it. Do you want me to send you mine? I am not planning on keeping it forever, let me know if so. I think you would like the non saccharine cat element and if you love all the urban change stuff then you will like that.

      • That’s very sweet of you, Simon, but publisher sent me a copy. I just wasnt sure if it was my thing… Ive seen a few reviews of it on other blogs but yours was the first that looked beyond the cat narrative, so I might just try it.

      • Its maybe two hours reading? Not too much of a risk😉 I will tell you what I’ve not liked in other reviews, why everyone brings up how they are a childless couple so naturally they would want a cat. Made me cross. It’s a family that own it officially anyway. Small rant over.

      • Hmmm… We are a child-free couple and we don’t even own a goldfish. We do have 8 wooden foxes though and a fluffy gorilla: do they count? lol.

      • Course they do! Ha. Im in a childless couple but we got cats because we wanted cats no baby replacements. The book doesnt make it about that. I found it interesting so many reviews (blogs and broadsheets) made it about that.

  5. I just picked it up on my iPad.🙂

  6. I know you mentioned that you’re not about to start reading a lot of books by cats, but have you read Natsume Soseki’s “I am a Cat”? It’s also a book where the narrator is a cat, but it is a very old book…and a very long one at that! Maybe next time you feel like reading another “cat” book, you might want to check it out.

    • I haven’t read that no. I have heard lots about it. If its long its a slight risk… But that is what the library is for. If I see it there I will borrow it! I actually have read another cat book since but its very very different. More on that tomorrow b

  7. I read The Guest Cat last year and found it deeply somber in tone, not at all the heartwarming, fuzzy cat book that I was half expecting from reviews. It had grace, poignancy and beautiful garden descriptions. I didn’t set out to read it as a cat book but as a work of Japanese fiction (of which I have not read nearly enough) that was appealingly short. I have, however, lived with cats my entire life.

    Nice review. I should revisit The Guest Cat – I’m sure it would be a rewarding book to read twice.

  8. I finished reading Guest Cat last night in bed. I wish I left the end for the day time. As a result I couldn’t sleep. I am now reading reviews and notions about the end and I realise I am doing what everyone does – start reading it again. It’s a book that haunts you but you don’t realise it until you finish the last page.

  9. Pingback: Japanese Literature Challenge 10 – Dolce Bellezza

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