It’s almost February (already?), which means it’s time to announce the next Book of the Month. I’d been wanting to read The Guest Cat ever since I first saw it on display a few months ago in Waterstones, which manages to persuade me to depart with my money every time I step in the door, but I managed to restrain myself until post-Christmas when I had a book token before buying this particular book. I love cats and all things Japan, so this book was inevitably going to appear on the blog sooner or later.
The author, Takashi Hiraide, is a popular writer of poetry and prose in Japan. The Guest Cat is a New York Times bestseller and winner of Japan’s Kiyama Shohei Literary Award.
The Guest Cat is set in suburban Tokyo in the late 1980s, just before the great Japanese recession. A couple in their early thirties live in a small ex-guest house in a zig-zagging alleyway they nickname ‘Lightning Alley’. The rules of their tenancy are ‘no children, no pets’, and neither of them are particularly fond of either, but this changes when the neighbours’ cat, a playful ball of fluff they decide to call ‘Chibi’, begins to frequent their house.
With a premise like that, how can you not enjoy this book if you like cats? That said, there’s a lot more to this story, so it should be enjoyable for those of you who aren’t necessarily cat-lovers. Chibi isn’t on every single page, after all, so there’s plenty of other things to explore; the in-depth description of the little guest house, nature and the time the book is set in are all very important themes. It’s fair to say The Guest Cat is as much about Japanese life in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the changes many Japanese people went through during that time, as much as it is about a cat and the impact it has on this husband and wife. Chibi is important in moving the story along and developing it, but isn’t the main driving factor. She is a cat, after all.
I was expecting to love The Guest Cat for obvious reasons and probably set my expectations too high as a result. I certainly enjoyed it and Hiraide is wonderfully poetic in his writing, but some parts of the narrative moved very slowly and stiffly for me, but I appreciate some things were probably lost in translation. The strangest thing for me, however, is the fact that the husband and wife are never given names. The story is told from the husband’s point of view and he only ever refers to his wife as ‘my wife’, which makes the whole story feel a quite impersonal. I have two theories for this, however; the reader isn’t meant to know who the husband and wife are so they can picture them as people they know or even themselves, or this is quite common language in Japanese books and has been directly translated as such. If you have a better suggestion, comment below!
Overall, I still enjoyed The Guest Cat. It’s quite a period novel, so if you’re interested in learning about Japanese life during the 1990’s recession, I recommend it. If you love cats, you’ve probably already read it and thought ‘my cat does that!’.
On a separate note, it’s less than two months until my friend and I fly to Japan (ahh!) and we’ve been doing some research on cat cafes. Handily, there’s one near our hostel in Tokyo and I’ve found at least two others that are tempting, so you can expect LOTS of cat photos on this blog in a few months…