by Takishi Hiraide
…One quick google will leave you comforted in the knowledge that the worst our gardens have to offer here in Britain are earwigs and thorns…
Very occasionally, when reading Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat, I would come across a certain something that forcefully reminded me that the book was set in Japan, rather than down my street. For example, at one point our protagonist, woken by what sounds like a knife being sharpened, steps into the garden to encounter a skirmish between a cicada and a giant praying mantis. One quick google will leave you comforted in the knowledge that the worst our gardens have to offer here in Britain are earwigs and thorns.
Such foreign aspects of the setting are striking, but only, I suspect, inasmuch as they clash with the otherwise banal and cross-cultural plotline of the novel.
To summarise, a young married couple rents a guesthouse in a small complex of houses owned by their elderly neighbour. They are both writers, or else periodically involved in the publishing business, and the pace of their life together has slowed to be become rather unremarkable. The little boy living next door one day persuades his mother to adopt a cat, and this cat, christened ‘Chibi’ by the protagonist and his wife, starts to visit the couple on a daily basis. Finding themselves delighted by their feline visitor, the couple begin to find new joy in life and when the time comes that their elderly landlord finally announces the upcoming sale of all her property, the two must contemplate finding a new home without the cat they’d so come to cherish as part of their lives.
Considering, therefore, that this plotline essentially consists of A) a couple who supply daily rations of mackerel, milk and affection for a cat that doesn’t even belong to them and B) difficulties concerning the Japanese rental market in the early 1990s, you’d be forgiven for assuming that The Guest Cat would make a dull read. You’d be wrong, however. There is something undeniably special about the way that the relatively unremarkable storyline is made lyrical and touching under the hand of Takishi Hiraide, who, by all accounts, is the actual protagonist of the tale.
The semi-autobiographical element to the book heightens the sentimentality that it evokes and makes the whole thing feel hugely personal. At no point as a reader did I sense a distance between the author and his narrative voice- this is unusual. After all, when reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, you do not imagine the kind face of J.K. Rowling narrating Harry’s adventures to you. Indeed, certain badly written autobiographies even fail at this. Takishi Hiraide, however, is a constant and comforting reading companion.
As such, long chapters devoted to character development are rendered superfluous to requirement. As readers, we are granted precious little detail regarding the protagonist’s wife. Rather, she is observed through the eyes of a man who is not rapturously describing every inch of a new face, but making the occasional fond comment on familiar behaviour. In this way, she becomes as likable and familiar to us as her husband- even more so, perhaps, due to the fact that her character is developed largely by her delicate acts of compassion towards people and animals alike. Hiraide’s background in poetry in strikingly obvious in the fluid prose, plain and unadorned, yet saturated with a subtle and undeniable emotion that runs through the whole novel. The beauty of certain images that he conjures- notably, when comparing Chibi to a bolt of lightening, or when observing dragonflies in the garden- remain ingrained in your mind.
I must nonetheless stress that there are no dramatic plot twists, cliff-hangers, rapes or murders in this novel. It is by no means a ‘page-turner’ in the traditional sense and as such certain readers will not enjoy it- but its pages nevertheless deserve to be turned! The Guest Cat is a short, poetic tribute to a period in a couple’s life when a mischievous cat brings light back to an uneventful living situation, nothing more, but it has been done incredibly well.
It is difficult to pinpoint what makes this novel worth reading. Certainly it was not a life-changing reading experience, nor the type of book that you finish and then gingerly place back down on the sofa beside you, mind racing. But maybe that’s just me. For anyone who yearns for a subtle and very beautiful exploration of the everyday, perhaps this book with leave you moved beyond words. Takishi Hiraide certainly seems an author with the potential to do so.