There is a phrase which appears over and over again in the novel The Cat who Saved Books that any book lover can instantly understand and appreciate: “Books have tremendous power.” And it’s true. Whether people like it or not, books do have tremendous power. But in what ways are books powerful? What is it about books that makes them objects that are both beloved and despised because of the power they possess? These are questions that the characters of The Cat who Saved Books consider and discuss throughout the novel, as a talking cat guides two Japanese teenagers through strange dimensions to save books in distress.
The Cat who Saved Books begins with the funeral of Rintaro Natsuki’s grandfather, who was the proprietor of a small used-book shop tucked away in a back alley of an unnamed town. His grandfather left the shop to Rintaro upon his death, and Rintaro, already numb with grief, must decide what to do with the shop. But as Rintaro sits and considers his future, a talking cat wanders into the shop, introduces itself as Tiger the Tabby, and tells him that someone, somewhere, has imprisoned a great number of books. “I need to rescue those books,” Tiger tells Rintaro, “and you need to help me.”
As the story progresses, Tiger asks Rintaro to come with them on several trips to rescue books from their abusive, negligent owners. And Rintaro, a notorious shut-in whose only real passion is for books, must continue to find ways to save these books from their owners, all of whom need reminding of the power of books. But he is not alone while he does this. Eventually, Rintaro and Tiger are joined by Sayo Yuzuki, Rintaro’s high school class rep and an all-around go-getter whose love of books is beginning to blossom. Concerned by Rintaro’s absences in class, she meets Tiger during one of her check-ins at the shop and insists on joining the two of them in their adventures. The three of them make quite a team.
The Cat who Saved Books was written in 2017 by up-and-coming Japanese author Sosuke Natsukawa, and was translated into English in early 2022. I want to take a moment to praise this novel’s translator, Louise Heal Kawai. The novel is short, about 180-190 pages, but it contains some surprising swings in tone. There are moments when readers will think they’re reading a breezy adventure with elements of romance in it, when suddenly the story turns into a high-stakes drama, only to then become a dryly humorous book as you read Tiger’s clever one-liners, Sayo’s exasperation at Rintaro’s shyness, and Rintaro’s resigned “is this happening, it is, isn’t it?” commentary. But these tone shifts never feel truly out of place, and I had to remind myself from time to time that I was reading a translated book. I feel that is a testament to Kawai’s excellent work as a translator, as well as how enjoyable Natsukawa’s narrative about the power of books and their effect on people truly is. If you love books, you should really check this book out.
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