Translated by Eric Selland
“But that also meant that Chibi was willing to show us another side of her personality which she didn’t show her real owners—her true nature, her refusal to pander to humans, the untouched, wild part of her character. This is where that sense of mystery that Chibi always left us with came from.”
Living in the guest house of a large, old Japanese estate owned by an elderly couple, a writer and his wife befriend Chibi, a neighbour’s cat. Soon Chibi is visiting them every day to be fed and played with, leading a double life of which her owners are entirely unaware. She greatly enriches the lives of her second family, but when the elderly couple decide to sell their home and move into a care facility, the writer and his wife must face their impending separation from a cat that was never theirs to begin with.
Chibi, and the other felines who appear in the pages of The Guest Cat, form the centre of the narrative around which the people revolve. This is reflected by the fact that the cats are the only named characters in the book—Chibi, Mrs. Muddy, Kappa, and Big Sister—while the people go unnamed, merely being described or referred to by an initial. However, it is the people who reflect on, and are affected by, the events that play out.
The author devotes much of his time to describing the surroundings in great detail, trying to bring the estate to life. However, most of these details do not serve the plot, nor are they particularly beautifully described, a fault which may, admittedly, lie with the translation rather than with the original text. This can tend to bog down an already slow-moving narrative, making some sections of this short book feel remarkably long.
While this short novel has very little in the way of action, the small events that do occur are quite resonant, reflecting on the ephemeral nature of things, and our tendency to try to cling to them. Although some of the descriptions are pedestrian, there is an undeniable depth of emotion that goes to the root of our ability to connect, not just with cats, but with other people, and with life. Mostly, however, I longed to be able to read the book in the original Japanese, and find out if the author’s own style matched the emotional currents I felt moving beneath the surface.
You might be interested in The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka