I simply couldn’t resist this translated tale of a talking cat who recruits a teenage bookshop owner to help rescue books!
Book: The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa, translated by Louise Heal Kawai
Publication date: 16th September 2021
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Picador Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Grieving a family member.
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 . . .
An enthralling tale of books, first love, fantasy, and an unusual friendship with a talking cat, The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa, translated by Louise Heal Kawai, is a story for those for whom books are so much more than words on paper.
I enjoy Japanese contemporary fantasy, and though I’ve not read very many, what I have read has tended to stick with me for a while. This definitely shares something of its style with my previous reads, particularly Before the Coffee Gets Cold, with its mix of magic and slice of life, but The Cat Who Saved Books is much less bittersweet than many of the others I’ve read. Although Rintaro is grieving his grandfather, the story doesn’t dwell on the negatives, but spends its time on the life lessons that Rintaro has learned from him and their shared love of books. It’s introspective, and rather philosophical, but there’s enough humour and optimism that it ends up feeling heartwarming rather than heartache-y.
This is a pretty short read, perfect for reading in one sitting, but you could also divide it up into smaller chunks labyrinth by labyrinth, as it’s fairly episodic in nature. In each labyrinth, Rintaro and Tiger must convince a man who abuses books in different ways to love them properly – although there are dire consequences if they fail, this is actually a fairly quiet book, focused on conversation and the ability to change someone’s mind. The magic is quiet, almost mundane, and there are no dramatic battles here, so if you’re looking for something that feels high stakes and high-action, you won’t find it. Instead, this is a book to relax into and let wash over you – definitely one for a quiet moment in the day. I think if it had been a longer book, I would perhaps have gotten a little bored of the sheer amount of dialogue, but as it is, it’s the perfect length to be charming.
I really loved the cat, to the surprise of absolutely no one! Tiger’s voice is perfectly feline, a combination of haughtiness and affection that really works, and he has a great sense of humour too. Rintaro, too, is a likeable hero, and it’s lovely to see him warm up to the world again once he has a sense of purpose, after shutting himself away for so long. It would perhaps have been nice to have a few more female characters in the (admittedly small) cast, but the addition of Rintaro’s sort-of friend Sayo, the peppy and practical class rep, really livened up the book for me – she’s plain-talking and an excellent foil to Rintaro’s tendency to hesitate and worry. In less than 250 pages, you really end up caring about all of them – there’s some really nice character work done in very little space.
The Cat Who Saved Books treads the line between pretention and heart, and I think that that’s exactly what it ends up discussing – is a love of books somehow a sign of virtue? Is the amount of books you read a replacement for a personality? Are they precious in their own right or for what they contain? Book Twitter can get really het up about these issues, so I really enjoyed seeing a calm, nuanced discussion among everything else here. It’s a real book person’s book. Speaking of that side of things, I also really enjoyed the translator’s note at the end, which gives a glimpse into the choices she made in translating – or choosing not to translate – particular words and concepts. I’m a real nerd for the way language works, and I loved getting a peek behind the curtain into a language I don’t speak.
Overall, this is a charming little flight of literary fantasy that feels very real and very philosophical at the same time. Four out of five bookish cats!