The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide (transl. Eric Selland): A most uncharacteristic read

The Guest CatI’m not the kind of person who’s obsessed with cats. I have one and I’m fond of her but she knows her place – on the sofa most of the time, naturally. I’m fully aware of why the first syllable of ‘Meow’ is what it is – it’s all about them after all. All this rigmarole is by way of self-justification as to why I’m about to review a book about a cat – not the sort of book I ever expected to include on this blog but I was sent a copy, it’s by a Japanese author which always piques my interest and it’s published by Picador whose list I like very much. So I read the first few pages, and here we are.

It’s narrated by a man who lives with his wife in the grounds of a large house with a rambling garden. They both work at home: he’s a writer, an editor who’s taken the plunge into freelance writing, and she’s a proofreader. In their mid-thirties and childless, they lead a quiet life, occasionally seeing friends and helping out their landlady. Their neighbour’s little boy has persuaded his mother to let him take in a stray cat. Shy and a little skittish at first, the cat begins to visit our narrator. The couple welcome her, making a little bed for her mindful of her need for privacy, play with her and give her a name: Chibi. Soon Chibi is coming and going has she pleases – which is what they do in my experience – but when their ageing landlady tells them that she plans to sell the house, they know they must move.

The beauty of this book is its elegant understatement punctuated by insights into the narrator’s life. They are a couple whose life is a little too quiet, their involvement in their work a little too intense. They seem barely connected to each other until Chibi comes along. Takashi Hiraide’s prose is often very beautiful and a little melancholic – his descriptions of the garden and nature within it arresting. For a Westerner like me, the glimpses into Japanese life are fascinating, further illuminated by a helpful set of translator’s notes from Eric Selland at the back of the book. Towards the end things takes a meta-fictional but not tricksy turn. Short but not slight, it’s a thoughtful rather lovely book. So, I’m glad I didn’t dismiss it but no more cat books: this is strictly a one-off.

17 thoughts on “The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide (transl. Eric Selland): A most uncharacteristic read”

    1. I’d already dismissed this book rather snottily in Waterstones, recently, but it turns out I was wrong. Definitely no more, though….

  1. I do actually rather like cats and cat books (put it down to a lifetime of longing for a cat as a pet), and of course I love Japanese literature, so this sounds like a perfect combination for me. Glad you managed to find something to enjoy in it!

    1. Well, they are very cuddly pets just so long as you know who’s boss – them, of course! The writing is beautiful – I’m sure you’d enjoy it.

  2. I was sent this one too and it’s yet to reach the top of my TBR pile. Not a great fan of books about pets but Picador has sent me a string of surprisingly enjoyable novels, so I’m hoping I’ll find something in it also.

    1. As you can probably tell from the palpable air of embarrassment around my post, Anne, I’m not one for cat books but it is lovely, and not really about the cat at all.

  3. So your cat Squeaker knows her place does she? Firmly in charge of you! Sounds an interesting book. Yet another one onto my list.

  4. I get the impression from your review that this is a quiet book, which I tend to enjoy. Like you I wouldn’t normally find myself picking up a cat book but this sounds quite lovely. Another one for the list!

  5. lonesomereadereric

    Really interesting to read this. I was sent a copy as well and have been wary of opening it because it just seemed like it might be only “cute.” But it’s good to know that it is more than that and worth reading. Seems like the perfect length for a weekend morning read.

    1. Well, you can probably tell from my self-justification rigmarole that I was very reluctant to read it let alone review it but it’s about very much more than the cat and the writing is lovely. Hope you like it, Eric.

  6. I have definitely seen that cover around, but not being a cat book reader myself (it’s bad enough having the real thing around, certainly NOT knowing his place in this household) I hadn’t paid it any attention. I will have to look a little closer now – but when the bookshop is quiet. 🙂

    1. Not something I’d usually pick up as my lengthy self-justification schtick suggests. Cats have staff, not owners – I’m convinced that’s what they think – and I’m sure they think that we certainly don’t know our place!

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