Bookish high school student Rintaro Natsuki is about to close the secondhand bookshop he inherited from his beloved grandfather. Then, a talking cat named Tiger appears with an unusual request. The cat needs Rintaro’s help to save books that have been imprisoned, destroyed and unloved.
Their mission sends this odd couple on an amazing journey, where they enter different labyrinths to set books free. Through their travels, Tiger and Rintaro meet a man who locks up his books, an unwitting book torturer who cuts the pages of books into snippets to help people speed read, and a publisher who only wants to sell books like disposable products. Then, finally, there is a mission that Rintaro must complete alone . . .
Japanese fiction translated by Louise Heal Kawai, The Cat Who Saved Books is a story for book lovers. At only 217 pages, and published in a small format, this book is a very short read and at its core explores love, loss, family, and the persistent power of books and reading. And with a talking cat, the novel of course dabbles in magical realism and contemporary fantasy.
Whilst this largely seems to be marketed as an adult novel, its appeal certainly expands beyond that readership. Over the course of the story, Rintaro embarks on four journeys to rescue literature, and the episodic structure of the novel is reminiscent of many children adventure stories — the grief-stricken protagonist, a talking animal driving the plot forward, and a friend in the form of a sidekick, keeping the story grounded in reality.
“It was only two days since Sayo and Rintaro had tea together. Rintaro had only replied vaguely to her pleas for him to go back to school, and ever since stayed holed up inside Natsuki Books. Really there didn’t seem any reason to go to school at all at this point.”
Underneath all the adventures, this is a story about an introverted young boy coming to terms with his grandfather’s death. When we meet him in the beginning of the novel, he’s getting ready to shut his grandfather’s bookstore. He’s barely attending school, he doesn’t have any friends and he doesn’t seem to possess passion for anything anymore. By meeting Tiger and embarking on these adventures, he comes to recognise what brings him joy and happiness, and is able to forge on without his grandfather. He learns to let others in, and let some things go from his mind.
“Rintaro took another look at the magnificent gate and the mimosa tree above. Its giant branches were covered in cottony blossoms. That was strange. It was December, which made this a very unusual mimosa indeed. But then again, from the outset everything he had seen today had defied common sense.”
Louise has done a great job with the translation, maintaining the whimsical, quirky nature of Japanese fiction and ensuring the story stays on course.
Admittedly, the short word count means the story does feel a little simplistic at times. It’s quite a clear cut story of good and bad, and does feel more like a novel for children than adults. However, it is a charming and enchanting tale that doesn’t take much time to read.
“Something in the atmosphere changed. Rintaro turned to look at the door. Beyond the darkness a wind had begun to blow. Or rather, there was a wind blowing through the hall, towards the darkness, easing Rintaro and the cat towards the fusuma door.”
Literary fiction with quite a specific audience, The Cat Who Saved Books is magical and wispy and will largely appeal to frequent readers and those who truly love reading. Readership skews 12+
Thank you to the publisher for sending me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.
The Cat Who Saved Books
Pan Macmillan Book Publishers