Sensitive Stories, Lyrical Imagery, and Curious Cats

A Review of The Travelling Cat Chronicles and The Guest Cat

This post will contain very mild spoilers for The Travelling Cat Chronicles and The Guest Cat.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles (which I will refer to hereby as Travelling) by Hiro Arikawa, and The Guest Cat (which I will call Guest) by Takashi Hirade, are novels connected by two major themes: Japan and cats (both just happen to be two things I love). They are also connected by much more subtle themes: of family and friendship, of time, of grief and new beginnings. I received both books as Christmas presents, which seems entirely fitting as they are both stories of cats coming into people’s lives as a sort of ‘gift’.

Guest is a story about a middle-aged, childless couple who live in a rented apartment in the guest house of an old Japanese house. One day a cat finds it’s way into their apartment, and swiftly into their lives and hearts. Through the cat, who they called Chibi (meaning ‘small one’), they reconnect as a couple, channeling joy, playfulness and imagination through the creature. They treat the cat part way between a child and a passing spirit, someone who they must care for but also treat with the upmost respect. The lonely space of their apartment, home to their stagnant marriage, is turned into a private, intimate space, a home, in which they can flourish and Chibi is, although only a guest, the centre. A box is placed for him in the corner, the window is left just a little open for him, and in welcoming in Chibi they welcome in the possibility of happiness, change, and friendship.

I saw the influence of Japanese poetry in the narrative, the descriptions of the small spots of nature in the city are beautiful, made evermore beautiful as the couple begins to experience their garden through the eyes of Chibi. When they are forced to move house towards the end of the story they look for apartments with a view of the same kind trees they knew at their old house, the plants that epitomise feelings of curiosity and happiness – feelings of Chibi. In Travelling I also felt the influence of haiku, short poems which capture the passage of the seasons through a natural image in only a few words. Satoru, the human protagonist, and Nana, the cat protagonist, are on a journey through Japan as Satoru visits some old friends. The description of the scenery and of the changing seasons as they travel are breathtaking, almost filmic in their imagery, for which I applaud Arikawa (and the translator Philip Gabriel) for their sensitive hold on the language necessary to capture scenery, without the narrative feeling bogged down by adjectives and metaphors like an old English classic.

Although the cat is titular in both novels the stories are more about relationships, between people and between animals. Both include intimate character studies which forge a deep connection between reader and character. In Travelling a strong connection is made between reader and cat as parts of the novel are narrated by Nana himself. It is a humourous and creative narrative style which when paired with the tragic finale of the plot (which I will not reveal) comes together to create a heartbreaking read. We see the strong relationship between human and animal from both within and without – from the 1st person (or 1st cat) and from the sensitive 3rd person viewpoint.

These really are both novels you must experience to understand why I am singing such praises for them, and clocking in at under 400 pages for the pair combined they are perfect short reads to start of your 2019 reading if, like me, you set a goal to read more this year. They are both stories that will stay with you, that will leave you captivated, just at the characters are captivated within the narratives by the cats.

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