Tag Archives: Eric Selland

Six Degrees of Separation – from Memoirs of a Geisha to Capital #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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I’m somewhat late to this month’s party, having spent a week in Spain (more of which next week). We’re starting with Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha which took the bestseller charts by storm back in the late ‘90s. Although I’ve read it, I can’t say it stands out in my memory.

Given the Japanese connection I can’t resist linking to a book by one of my favourite writers, Haruki Murakami. Last month I wrote a Blast from the Past post about one of his wackiest novels, A Wild Sheep Chase. To balance that I’ve chosen South of the Border, West of the Sun, a much more accessible pieces of fiction about a happily married man forced to remember his past when his childhood sweetheart reappears.

Cats pop up all over the place in Murakami’s fiction which takes me to Takashi Hiraide’s elegantly pared-back The Guest Cat about a reclusive young couple who open up their home and hearts to a stray cat and are then faced with the prospect of moving. Short but not slight, it’s a thoughtful rather lovely book.

Cats are not known for paying their way as opposed to Sarah Waters’ characters in  The Paying Guests which sees an impoverished war widow and her daughter reluctantly take in lodgers. Lots of readers loved Waters’ first twentieth-century set novel but I much prefer her Victorian pastiches.

One of the best examples of Victorian pastiche I’ve read is Charles Pallisers’ The Quincunx which I pulled off the shelves earlier in the year for H who was recovering from a nasty chest infection. It’s many years since I read it but I do remember it has a satisfyingly convoluted plot and an equally pleasing unreliable narrator.

I haven’t read Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series but H tells me I really should given that I’m a fan of state of the nation novels. Made up of six separate books, the series was once known as the Parliamentary Novels and was adapted for TV back in the days before the BBC thought it was a good idea to condense a long piece of fiction into four parts.

Which leads me to a more recent state of the nation novel of which there are many to choose from but I’m plumping for John Lanchester’s Capital because of its clever premise – surveying the nation through the fortunes of one London street just after the global financial collapse of 2008.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an ageing woman’s memories of her life as a geisha in early twentieth-century Japan to a single London street holding up a mirror to my own nation in 2008. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide (translated by 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.