by Louise Heal Kawai (Translator), Sosuke Natsukawa
Publication Date: December 7, 2021
Bookish high school student Rintaro Natsuki is about to close the secondhand bookstore he inherited from his beloved bookworm grandfather. Then, a talking cat appears with an unusual request. The feline asks for—or rather, demands—the teenager’s help in saving books with him. The world is full of lonely books left unread and unloved, and the cat and Rintaro must liberate them from their neglectful owners.
Their mission sends this odd couple on an amazing journey, where they enter different mazes to set books free. Through their travels, the cat and Rintaro meet a man who leaves his books to perish on a bookshelf, an unwitting book torturer who cuts the pages of books into snippets to help people speed read, and a publishing drone who only wants to create bestsellers. Their adventures culminate in one final, unforgettable challenge—the last maze that awaits leads Rintaro down a realm only the bravest dare enter . . .
An enthralling tale of books, first love, fantasy, and an unusual friendship with a talking cat, The Cat Who Saved Books is a story for those for whom books are so much more than words on paper.
I have no idea how I discovered this book – I know I read about it somewhere online, and I thought it was here, but I can find no reference to it, so I’ll just throw out a ‘Thank you!’ to the universe at large for putting this book in my path.
Saying that, the title is a little misleading; I’d argue that the cat does not save the books, but is merely a guide for the teen-aged boy who does save the books. Since I don’t speak Japanese beyond ‘arigato’ I can’t say if this is a translation issue or a marketing one.
As I was reading, two thoughts stayed with me: the first was that this book had a definite Wrinkle in Time vibe – which should be taken with a grain of salt, because I never liked that book, so the parallel is likely tenuous – and second, the philosophy that props this book up feels far more Franciscan than Zen. The translator’s notes at the end point out the so-obvious-I-missed-it connection to Greek mythology and it’s labyrinth, so who knows what connections each reader of this book will make? And I think that’s one of the points this book makes – each reader takes what they need from every book they need, and rarely do two people need the same things.
As a story, it’s an engaging one; a little sweet, a little naive from a Western viewpoint (I’m assuming school attendance laws are laxer in Japan? And perhaps too emancipation laws?), but it’s also a fantasy, so some slack needs to be cut, but not all that much. Rintaro’s life in his grandfather’s bookshop sounds like heaven to me, even without the talking cat; Tiger the Tabby just made it even better. But the ideas addressed about books and the people that love them are anything but sweet and naive, and for book lovers, there’s some deeply fundamental stuff going on just under the surface.
The book seemingly wants to end after the 3rd labyrinth, when suddenly a fourth one is tacked on – and it feels tacked on. At first I resented this … addendum, because it felt like it was pandering and gilding the lily, so to speak, not to mention the ill-fitting ‘save the damsel’ conceit of it. But I have to not only concede that it worked, but that 1/2 star in my rating is for Natsukawa’s cleverness. I like what he did there, in spite of the way he framed it. The ambiguity of who is at the centre of the fourth labyrinth is delicious – I have my suspicions, but so will others that read this book, and I doubt any of us would agree and none of us would be wrong. I love it when that happens!