I love animals, and I love books, but I tend to avoid novels about animals because I don’t enjoy crying. The world has given us enough to sob about lately. No one needs to relive “Old Yeller” to induce catharsis.
Perhaps I’m still scarred by “Where the Red Fern Grows,” which made me bawl so unremittingly that my mother threatened to take me to a doctor. (Or was that “Charlotte’s Web”?) Those classics end sadly, but when you’re a kid, you’ve also got plenty of reading options in which the animals make it to the last page. Just look at almost any novel by Kate DiCamillo, who gave us the adventures of Despereaux the mouse, Edward Tulane the rabbit, and Louise the very brave chicken. Sure, characters like these aren’t real animals so much as anthropomorphized stand-ins for humans. And okay, the reptiles and rodents of “The Wind in the Willows” wear pants, which has nothing to do with how real animals live. But when you read a story that takes place in a realm where a toad can drive a car, at least you know you’ll be spared a sad scene with an aging Labrador in a vet’s office.
When an animal shows up as a pet in a novel for adults, however, there’s a solid chance that critter is doomed. This is why I couldn’t make myself read “Lily and the Octopus,” Steven Rowley’s novel about a man’s relationship with his elderly dachshund, when it came out two years ago. I finally did read it recently, with one hand half-covering my eyes. It made me laugh many times and also made me cry just as hard as I did while reading Garth Stein’s “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” which is narrated by Enzo, the dog whom you know from the start is very old. Things never end well for old pets.
So at first I resisted “The Travelling Cat Chronicles,” by Hiro Arikawa — a novel for adults, narrated by a cat — because I didn’t want to suffer. Readers and booksellers kept talking about it, though. Its gorgeous cover art drew my attention again and again in my local bookstore. And then this newspaper asked me to review it. Here we are.
To get on board with this reading experience, you need to be okay with a feline raconteur. The cat in this case is a former stray, adopted by a single man named Satoru, who names him Nana (based on the Japanese word for “seven,” a lucky number and the shape of Nana’s tail). Nana narrates much, but not all, of this novel, which is both his story and Satoru’s.
You need to believe animals have thoughts and feelings, and that they act according to personal values, such as loyalty. “I am Satoru’s one and only cat,” Nana says. “And Satoru is my one and only pal.” You also have to believe animals can understand language. It’s a sign of the strong bond between Nana and Satoru that they understand each other most of the time, even though Nana understands human words and Satoru can only guess what Nana’s gestures and meows mean.
If you can go for all that, you’re ready to enjoy this road trip story, which takes place as Satoru and Nana drive across Japan in a silver van for reasons I won’t spoil here. They visit Kosuke, Satoru’s best friend from grade school, who is having marital troubles; Yoshimine, a friend from middle school who now works as a farmer; and a couple, Sugi and Chikako, Satoru’s closest high school friends, who are now married to each other. The sections in which we find out how and why Satoru came to love these people provide more than incidental backstory. In fact, some of Arikawa’s best storytelling happens in these passages.
Occasionally, Nana’s understanding of the human world feels like a bit of a stretch. When Satoru takes his cat to visit a cemetery, for example, Nana knows the stone squares are grave markers “because I’d seen them on TV.” I could quibble, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. After all, at my house we have two dog narrators, a beagle named Eleanor Roosevelt and a mutt named Woodstock. Sometimes they “talk” to each other out loud, even if their voices are actually coming out of my mouth. It doesn’t take much for me to accept that a family pet has a story to tell.
As much as “The Travelling Cat Chronicles” is a novel about the family-like bond between people and their animals, it’s also a novel about friend families. As kids and teens, Kosuke, Yoshimine, Sugi and Chikako stood by Satoru in his darkest moments and cared for him in ways his own relatives could not. He might have been more deeply scarred by the events of his childhood had it not been for these people, and with their help he survived to adulthood with his gentle kindness intact.
Because many of us as children read books narrated by animals, we might assume that an adult reading a book narrated by an animal is an act of childish, cozy comfort, like cuddling up with an old blanket. But to rebut that, I’d offer this very novel, which shows that much of what has value in childhood — especially childhood friends — has continued value in our later years. It is not a sign of diminished maturity to revisit the lessons and memories of youth; rather, these remembrances can be a source of strength when adulthood most demands it.
While Arikawa did the imaginative work of translating from cat to human, Philip Gabriel, who has also worked with such authors as Haruki Murakami, translated the whole thing from Japanese to English. That’s a lot of translation, but only rarely does it get a little clunky. (During a scene when a cat gets into a disagreement with a dog, I felt a little like I was watching Sassy and Chance squabble in “Homeward Bound.”)
Are you unlucky if you’ve experienced a lot of loss in your lifetime? Or are you lucky because you had people — and animals — to get you through it? This book comes down on the side of gratitude, a testament to the good fortune we all have in choosing how to honor those who matter to us most. And it does so with a fablelike charm, without turning too sweetly sentimental or gimmicky.
It may make you cry, just a little, but it will also make you take stock of your friendships and ask yourself: If you could take a road trip to be reunited with just a few people from your past, whom would you visit?
Mary Laura Philpott is the author of “Penguins With People Problems” and the forthcoming memoir-in-essays “I Miss You When I Blink.”
By Hiro Arikawa, translated by Philip Gabriel
Berkley. 288 pp. $20