The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa

Stars: 2.5 out of 5

I’m always eager to discover new voices in literature, especially if they come from other cultures. Those authors always have very unique outlooks at life that you won’t find in our Western civilizations. It definitely broadens my horizon as a reader. So I was very eager to pick up this book when I saw it on NetGalley – a translation of an new Japanese author, and we have a talking cat who saves books? What is there not to like?

Well, the writing, as it turns out. 

The story itself is interesting and rather uplifting – we follow Rintaro, a very shy and introverted high school student, who is trying to deal with the sudden death of his grandfather, who had been his only family for all these years. It doesn’t help that Rintaro is a literal shut-in with severe social anxiety, and that the safe bubble that he’d built in his grandfather’s bookshop is about to burst. Then a talking cat appears and takes him on a fantastical adventure to save books and find his own voice. By the end of the journey, Rintaro finally discovers his own value and decides what he wants to do in life. 

It is a nice coming of age story that would definitely appeal to a younger audience… and a book I would never have picked up if I’d known it was aimed at the younger adult audience. I don’t read YA. This book just reaffirmed all the reasons why I don’t. 

The writing, as I had mentioned earlier, is simplistic at best. I don’t know if it’s due to so many nuances getting lost in translation, as they inevitably do, or if the original was written this way as well. It might have been, if it was intended for a 12+ audience, even if it was classified as General Fiction (Adult) on NetGalley.

Problem with this book is that it does a lot of telling and almost zero showing. Everything has to be spelled out for the reader. We are told how Rintaro feels and what he thinks of his few friends or people he encounters, but there is nothing in the writing that shows these reactions. It might also be that the author is Japanese, so he relies on Japanese stereotypes that would be familiar to a younger Japanese audience, but that are rather foreign to us. For example, Sayo, the class representative, came across as pushy, rude, and judgmental of Rintaro every time I read about her… Yet, he admires her for being a straight talker and very dedicated to her duties. And he just takes her verbal abuse like it’s normal. 

Another problem is that I can’t even visualize these characters. What does Rintaro look like? His only distinctive feature are his glasses that he likes to fiddle with. Same for Sayo. She could be any other Japanese high school student from the street and it wouldn’t make a difference. Or Akiba? Heck, the only character who gets a real description is Tiger the cat. Maybe that’s normal for Japanese novels. Maybe relying on common stereotypes is good enough for that audience. Me, it just left me rather bored. I felt like I was following a shadow play on the wall, where characters are blank cutouts. 

So all in all, it really wasn’t my cup of tea, even if it gave me a peak, of sorts, into the life of an insecure teenage boy living in a second hand book store somewhere in Japan. I wanted a bit more than that though, but it was probably just a matter of managing my expectations.

PS: I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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