Book review: The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

(image via and (c) Picador)
(image via and (c) Picador)

 

Human beings are a famously contradictory lot.

While our thirst for knowledge, for the new and the boldly imaginative has defined us as a species for thousands of years, we also creatures of habit, keen embracers of certainty and reassuring routine.

That oddly-oppositional coming together of restless, driving curiosity and potentially stultifying contentment with the known universe is often what defines our lives, something Takashi Hiraide remarks on in his gently-meditative, enormously profound book The Guest Cat.

An unexpected bestseller through France and USA, where it has spoken to cat lover, and non-cat lover alike, The Guest Cat muses on humanity’s dual, conflicting impulses, and how our preference for letting things wild and new settle and fester into the blandly routine can often be broken up by the most unexpected of things.

Such as a neighbour’s cat, in this case a plucky, fiercely independent feline by the name of Chibi, deciding that her world now encompasses the small guesthouse next to the neighbour’s house she calls her own.

The occupants of the house, a husband and wife who both work as freelancer writers and have fallen into a relationship rut so all engulfing not even they are aware of its full extent, aren’t sure how they feel about their unexpected new guest/occasional mistress at first, uncomfortable with her disrupting of their well-ordered, though hardly-invigorating lives.

“Eating and sleeping as much as she liked, circulating freely between locales, it seemed as if the boundary between the two households had itself come into question. Even the words we used to talk about Chibi had become a mass of confusion: was her coming to our house a return – a homecoming – or was it the other way around? Was home really over there? The whole situation seemed to be in flux. Once, when we had been out for the day, we returned to find Chibi there in the dim light of the entrance to welcome us, seated properly, feet together on the raised wooden floor as if she were a young girl who had been left to care for the house while we were away.
‘See, I told you. She’s our girl.’
…or so my wife said, though she knew she wasn’t really ours. Which is why it seemed all the more as if she were a gift from afar – an honored guest bestowing her presence upon us.”

But as is the way of cats, Chibi doesn’t wait until they are ready to receive her, or hold off in the face of their discomfit with this unexpected new presence in their lives; she simply moves in, day by day, bit by bit as though she belongs there until she has awakened in the couple of a renewed appreciation of what life can bring them if they’re open to it.

Lest this sound like some sort of tearjerker, Hollywood-optioned weepie of lives transformed and lifelong boredom banished, it is a far more profound and substantially-realised work than that.

 

(Alternate cover (c) Picador)
(Alternate cover (c) Picador)

 

Hiraide, who has all but admitted the book is essentially autobiographical, realises that though lives may be disrupted, often for the better by unforeseen influences, they are rarely unceremoniously and dramatically upended, except in the most extreme of circumstances.

Rather, as he touchingly observes in a book that only occasionally loses itself in overlong passages of building architecture and the intricacies of surveying computations, lives change little by little, by degrees often unrealised until our lives take on a hue we would never have contemplated in our previously myopic existence.

And that’s the true gift of this remarkable book which packs a host of insightful observances about the human condition and the way it influences the way we lives our lives into its short 136 page length.

A treatise on the need we all have to stay alive and engaged, even when we have long since surrendered to the been-there-done-that of well-marked and understood life, The Guest Cat uses the story of one couple and one unstoppable cat to explore the way human beings crave connection, a sense of belonging and love.

We may not always admit it, burying those parts of ourselves under a blanket of deadline-driven work projects, errands and long-lived habits, but the impulse to be a part of something bigger and more encompassing than ourselves persists until it’s awoken by something or someone.

Poetically-written, with contemplation and musing the order of the day, and changed occurring in small slightly-felt and softly-observed increments, many driven by the presence of one quite remarkably plucky cat, The Guest Cat is a far more than the sum of its brief length.

It’s a salutary subtlely-delivered admonition that while we might crave a sense of control, of order and well-defined life, that having things challenged, even in the most oblique of ways, can be good for our souls in ways we might never have imagined.

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