The Cat Who Saved Books
by Sōsuke Natsukawa, translated from the Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai
Originally published in 2017
Expected US publication date: December 7, 2021
After the unexpected death of his beloved and bookish grandfather, unassuming high school student Rintaro Natsuke is preparing to close the doors of the secondhand bookshop his grandfather ran for years. He’s only a teenager, after all, and no one seems to like him very much and he’s moving away anyway. Then one night a strange cat shows up in the bookshop. He starts talking to Rintaro, says his name is Tiger, and that he needs Rintaro’s help to free imprisoned books from the uncaring and demented owners who keep them prisoner. And so Rintaro follows Tiger into a series of labyrinths to free the books. Along the way, Rintaro learns about the love of books, and more importantly, he learns about himself in this moving story about books, a bookworm’s hidden inner strength, and first love.
Cats and books seem to go together. This is especially true in Japan, where the cat book has been part of the literary scene since Natsume Sōseki’s satirical I Am a Cat was first published. Since then, cats– talking or not– have shown up in books to point out human foibles and frailties, and to show up what makes life worth living. Sōsuke Natsukawa’s second novel, The Cat Who Saved Books gives us another such cat. Tiger’s apparent goal is to rescue books from uncaring owners, but it’s not long before his secondary mission is revealed: he’s also there to rescue Rintaro, who is so introverted that he doesn’t recognize the friendship or concern that other kids at his high school offer him. Without his grandfather to ground him in reality, Rintaro is content to retreat into his books and let life pass him by.
But as any sensible bookworm knows, reading is a retreat, not the entirety of life. At some point, even the most devoted readers have to put the book down and look another person in the eye, walk out into the world, and live life outside the pages. At the beginning of The Cat Who Saved Books, Rintaro has forgotten this. His unexpressed grief at his grandfather’s death stops him from remembering the joy that reading brought his grandfather. He is neglecting everything that he learned in the bookshop, and in turn, he is trapping his books as much as the villains of the labyrinths are. The cat, Tiger, appears in Rintaro’s darkest hour to try to push him onto a path away from self-isolation and despair. It’s up to Rintaro to find the courage and the hope he needs to find his way out of the labyrinths and to find the right balance between his internal and external lives.
As charming and meaningful as The Cat Who Saved Books is, a work in translation is only as good as its translator. Fortunately, Louise Heal Kawai is a skilled translator with multiple Japanese to English translations to her name. She captures Rintaro’s sadness, Tiger’s no-nonsense attitude, and strikes a balance between whimsy and solemnity, never allowing the story to go too far to one extreme or the other. It is, in short, a brief and beautiful novel about why we read and the value that books bring to our lives- not just from the wisdom we find in great stories, but also from the people that books help us to find.
Thank you to NetGalley and HarperVia for providing me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion.