It’s not often that I get books dropping into my letter box completely unexpectedly, especially Japanese books, but that was the case recently when I found a new release waiting for me there, one that many readers will no doubt like the sound of. It’s a YA novel with a focus on books and reading, including distinct shades of fantasy – such as a talking cat.
Now that I’ve got your attention…
Sosuke Natsukawa’s The Cat Who Saved Books (translated by Louise Heal Kawai, review copy courtesy of Picador Australia) is the story of Rintaro Natsuki, a high-school kid processing the recent death of his grandfather, the man he grew up with. The teenager has inherited the shop the old man ran, Natsuki Books, a haven filled with second-hand tomes from all around the world, but it’s a home he’s soon to leave as the plan is for him to head off to live with his aunt.
Before the move can happen, though, Rintaro is in for several encounters. In the first few pages, he’s visited by a couple of kids from school: Ryota Akiba, a cool high-school senior and a regular customer, and after him, Sayo Yuzuki, Rintaro’s slightly bossy class president. However, the visitor that stands out is slightly more unexpected – because it’s a cat:
This particular cat had distinctive stripe markings running from the top of its head down its back and tail – typical of a tabby – but its stomach and legs were pure white. Against the dimly lit background, its eyes were two gleaming jade stones. And they were fixed directly on Rintaro.
Rintaro watched as the cat flexed its long, graceful tail.
“You’re a cat!”
“Got a problem with that?” asked the cat.
There was no mistaking it – the cat had just spoken.
p.16 (Picador Australia, 2021)
Yes, Rintaro has been visited by a cat that can speak, and the talkative tabby isn’t here to browse the shelves.
As the title suggests, Tiger (our feline friend) is on a mission to save books, and for some reason he needs Rintaro’s help. What follows is a series of bizarre adventures, with the intrepid pair venturing into several ‘labyrinths’ via a kind of portal at the back of the bookshop. It’s the youth’s job to seek out several individuals who, while loving books, are actually destroying them, and then persuade them to change their ways. All clear? Then off we go 😉
Natsukawa’s novel is all great fun as we accompany Rintaro and Tiger into strange realms. We come across a man too busy to reread books, keeping his library locked up for show. Then there’s a professor hell-bent on condensing literature into its essence, and a book executive pumping out dross, focusing on what will sell rather than what’s worth reading. Rintaro, a bookish youth who largely stays away from the outside world, is forced to act as a champion of literature, pleading with those he meets to change their ways, and, of course, the stakes here are pretty high. You see, if he fails in his quests, he might not make it home…
I must admit that the encounter with the publisher raised a wry smile as The Cat Who Saved Books could hardly be more cynically aimed at a target audience if it tried. There’s the quiet protagonist just waiting to be dragged out into the world, and (naturally) a feisty girl (Sayo) who will soon realise Rintaro’s true worth. The antagonists the characters find inside the labyrinth are just the kind of pantomime villains we can all boo at, until their timely rehabilitation, of course. And as for Tiger, well, a talking cat is about the lowest-hanging literary fruit there is.
Which is not to say it’s a poor book. Natsukawa’s novel is fairly simple, but well-written, and Heal Kawai brings the fun tale into English in an elegant, unshowy style. It’s an enjoyable story, a clearly structured adventure that many readers will appreciate, and its J-Lit-light feel reminds me very much of Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Before the Coffee Gets Cold, as does the separation of the story into four distinct adventures. If you need any more familiar references, then let’s just say that Tiger, the slightly sarcastic talking feline, is rather reminiscent of various Murakami sidekicks, too.
The direction the story will take is rather obvious in places, and it’s perhaps at its best when it slows down a little. When we’re not rushing around the ‘labyrinths’, the main focus is on Rintaro as he comes to term with his grandfather’s death. His loss and subsequent adventures make him think hard about what he actually wants from his life, and he comes to the realisation that while books give us knowledge, it’s all of no use unless we go out and use it to help people:
“In today’s world, a lot of what should be obvious has been turned upside down. The weak are used as stepping stones and those in need are taken advantage of. People just get caught up in this pattern. Nobody stands up and calls for it to stop.” (p.61)
Over the course of the tale, the introverted youth learns the importance of letting people in – and of helping others out.
There’s nothing earth-shattering here, but The Cat Who Saved Books is a novel that will appeal to a lot of readers out there (I’m sure I had most of you at ‘talking cat’). It’s a fun look at the role reading plays in our lives, and the pitfalls that lie in wait if we take it all too seriously. A slightly predictable ending sets us up for further adventures, and while I have no idea whether any sequels have been written, it wouldn’t surprise me at all. In fact, given some of my comments earlier in this post, I’m now slightly concerned that Rintaro’s next adventure might bring an encounter with a grumpy reviewer, one who prefers to read obscure books that nobody else knows about…
…you heard it here first 😉