The best novels are often the ones that change us. They speak to a void, sometimes quietly, other times loudly from the proverbial rooftop. When done right, they bring to the surface important questions and compel us to look inward. Over time, they stay with us — like small miracles.
A bestseller in France and recipient of Japan’s prestigious Kiyama Shohei Literary Award, The Guest Cat is a rare treasure. In just under 140 pages, it spans a wide spectrum of emotion and detail. Takashi Hiraide, the Japanese poet and novelist, blindsided me. His prose — so illuminating and achingly poetic — made me care. Damn it, it made me care a lot. About cats. The thing about cats is this: you either love them or you hate them. In this way, they are perhaps the most polarizing of all animals. Yet, as our narrator points out early on, “When I think about it now, rather than my not being a cat lover, it may simply have been that I felt a disconnect with people who were cat lovers.”
This is the account of two emotionally distant people and the power of serendipity to bring about change. A young married couple — both writers — rent a guesthouse on a large estate. The property, which is nearly five thousand square feet, is owned and cared for by an old woman and her ailing husband. It boasts a pond and a lush garden with an array of plants and aquatic flowers. To a fault, the unnamed renters are both deeply committed to their work. They barely speak and they seldom leave their desks. They never venture out far enough to fully appreciate their surroundings. Their lives are for the most part humdrum and uneventful.
Although neither of them is particularly fond of cats, they soon make the acquaintance of Chibi, the neighbors’ small white “jewel of a cat.” Full of energy and athletic skill (the things she can do with a Ping-Pong ball!), it’s not long before Chibi makes an impression on the two. And after a time, they become attached; eager and willing to break from their work whenever Chibi shows up to play. She naturally becomes a necessary part of their lives, adding joy and expectation to their days. At one point the wife asks, “Don’t you think she really belongs to us?” The question speaks to her innate desire to “mother” something — a desire that, unknowingly, had gone suppressed.
Eventually the couple sees it fit to abandon routine in favor of exploring the grounds with Chibi. They marvel as Chibi swats flies and climbs trees at lightning speed. They become enraptured by all sorts of little things that, at this stage in their lives, amount to much more than just minutiae. Essentially, they fall in love. Wild and carefree, Chibi comes and goes as she pleases — creeping in through their window, eating and sleeping to her heart’s content. Then something happens, something that changes things and takes the couple, and the reader, on an unexpected emotional trajectory.
As the story unfolds and shifts to the metafictional, we learn that what we are reading is, in fact, the novel the man is writing, and it’s a work of subtlety and beaming intelligence. Whether waxing philosophical on Machiavelli or on the complexities of fate — Fortuna — Hiraide shows himself to be a poet of the highest grade. In his hand, the common is made beautiful and profound. I submit this: Whether you’re a cat lover or not, don’t pass this one up based on any preconceived anything. The deceptively simple plot plunges you — what seems like effortlessly — into a world of art, philosophy, and the mysterious nature of our ties to other living things. Ultimately, it’s about what it means to love and to lose. Even dog lovers will relate.