The Guest Cat
Publishing year: 2014
Translator: Eric Selland
Genre: contemporary literature
This review was originally written for ToTen Magazine.
An unnamed childless couple in their thirties rents a cottage on a larger property in a quiet neighbourhood in Tokyo. They’re both freelance writers, but despite the fact that they work from home, they don’t have much to say to each other. One day, a stray cat wanders into their cottage. Though the cat, Chibi, is adopted by their neighbours, she keeps visiting the couple’s house. The couple aren’t even cat people, but Chibi brings them small pleasures and allows them to reconnect with each other. Ultimately, this book is about the way Chibi affects the couple’s lives; the joy and meaning she brings, as well as how fast these moments of joy can change.
With barely 140 pages, The Guest Cat is not a very long read. The prose of this originally Japanese novella is, despite its philosophical passages and literary references, quite simple and sparse. At the same time, however, the descriptions are beautiful and even lyrical – I wasn’t surprised to learn that Takashi Hiraide is a poet. This balance of simplicity and lyricality allows for vivid prose that is never bogged down by any unnecessary words and descriptions. Though some elements of the writing might have been lost in translation, Eric Selland has done a wonderful job conveying this in the English version.
Not much actually happens in this story. Most of the narrative takes place in the cottage or the garden it is situated on, and with the exception of the cat, none of the characters bear any names.
The prose focuses on people and places, not so much on events. Though there are descriptions of Chibi’s antics, the novel does not revolve around the cuteness of the cat (though Chibi is still very much at the centre of the narrative). Ultimately, this is a very quiet story in a quiet neighbourhood with quiet people. This, along with the prose, is why this novel appears so simple at the surface.
All this simplicity belies a depth in the narrative that is executed in a subtle way. The Guest Cat explores the small things that affect people’s lives and the way it connects them. The beauty and serenity of nature also takes a prominent place in the novel’s themes, which Chibi is very much a part of. At the same time, the story also conveys the fragility of nature as well as these small things and connections. Despite any attempts at preservation, life, and the people and moments that are part of that life, are transient. Nature itself is also subject to change. This sense of temporality is what makes this novel so moving.
However, the quiet and subtle nature of The Guest Cat might not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you want something more eventful, you might want to skip this. But if you’re looking for elegant prose, a short read that has a bit more depth, or even just a story about how a cat brings meaning to the lives of a Japanese couple, you should give this a try. You don’t even need to be a cat person to appreciate it.