A physician and award-winning writer, Sosuke Natsukawa is best known to Japanese audiences for his medical-themed novel “In His Chart” (“Kamisama no Karute”), which has been adapted for the big screen and TV. His English-language debut, however, combines elements of fantasy, coming-of-age and classic literature in a tale about a reticent teenager with hikikomori (reclusive) tendencies and the straight-talking feline who enters his life.

The Cat Who Saved Books, by Sosuke Natsukawa
Translated by Louise Heal Kawai
208 pages

Raised by his caring grandfather, high school student Rintaro is suddenly faced with closing the family business — a secondhand bookshop specializing in literary classics — when the old man dies. For a shy boy who has always found solace in the shop and its books, the future seems bleak. Things take an unexpected turn when a cat named Tiger strolls nonchalantly into the shop, announcing that he needs Rintaro’s assistance to save books from mistreatment at the hands of their thoughtless owners.

In a relationship that is reminiscent of those in C. S. Lewis’ “The Horse and His Boy,” the cat leads Rintaro through a series of mysterious portals into increasingly tricky situations where he must use his wits to liberate both the books and himself. He is soon joined by his classmate Sayo, a pragmatic, kindhearted girl who is unfazed when she encounters the cat with the gift of the gab.

Although Tiger originally approaches the boy seeking help, it is actually Rintaro who gains the most through his journey of growth and self-discovery. His burgeoning confidence is accompanied by a gradual awareness of the importance of connecting with and caring about other people. One of the highlights of the novel is the development of Rintaro’s relationship with Sayo, and Louise Heal Kawai’s sympathetic translation captures the subtle nuances of the teenage protagonist’s thoughts and feelings.

Following Rintaro, Sayo and Tiger in and out of an unsettling parallel universe in their quests to liberate books, Natsukawa asks readers to reflect on the true meaning of loving books. The trio encounter a series of self-professed bibliophiles during their adventures: a critic who keeps his books locked up like museum pieces on shelves after one reading; an academic who heedlessly destroys books in his mission to condense them for speed reading; and a publisher who treats them like disposable commodities in his mission to sell as many as possible with no regard for the contents. Then in a final, eerie encounter, Rintaro faces an adversary who forces him to dig deep into his soul to justify his own love of books.

As an increasing number of people choose to order books online and read them on a device (or listen to audiobooks while multitasking), this gentle novel gives readers an opportunity to reflect on their own relationship with the printed word. Quirky and heartwarming in equal measure, “The Cat Who Saved Books” invites us to remember the joy of curling up with a favorite book, and savoring the tactile pleasure that comes with turning the pages and immersing ourselves in a good story.

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