THE GUEST CAT by Takashi Hiraide

A most unusual little book for the Western reader to read, digest and ponder over. This has been translated from the Japanese - the Japanese author is a well known poet. So not surprising that the writing is very lyrical with each word carefully and precisely chosen. This lends to the story a gentle and intensely thoughtful tone,  such things noticeable lacking in so much of our busy challenging lives. We are constantly told to be more mindful, pause, take a break, just sit and be. This little book of 136 well spaced pages demands that you do just this very thing - sit, read and be very present in the writing.

Cats mesmerise us humans, and in the country that gave the world Maru, cats are adored, obsessed over. The couple in this story don't own a cat, but as so many of us can testify to, a cat sort of adopts them - the guest cat. This book is the story of the relationship between cat and humans that evolves, and the profound change it brings to the husband and wife. Not a lot happens, in fact for much of the book, nothing at all happens. It is just a gentle meditation on life, what we are doing, how we relate to each other. It didn't leave an enormous impression on me - I have my own nutty relationship with cats - but it is very beautiful, and certainly touches a spot in the heart. 


How intriguing growing up knowing that somewhere far across the seas in a foreign land there may be a priceless heirloom collection of the world's finest porcelain, buried in a huge hole by your great great grandfather, as he escapes with his family from the advancing Japanese army! Author Huan Hsu is an ABC - American Born Chinese, having grown up straddling the three worlds of the US, China and Taiwan. As a journalist he has a desperate curiosity to find out if the porcelain collection is still buried, or even if it exists at all. He pulls on his big 'find my inner Chinese' boots and travels to China to dig out the story.

What unfolds is an enormous amount of discovery, not only about his ancestry and his family, but also about himself.  He finds he has to leave his American self very far behind as he learns the language, learns how to get on with those he works with and mixes with, and tries to get answers to the multitude of questions he has. He travels widely too, locating many family members, some of whom live in China, some who live in Taiwan, getting their stories, sifting through the wildly diverse accounts of what happened firstly in 1938 when the family was scattered throughout China and Taiwan, and then what happened after the war with the Nationalists and Communists at loggerheads, the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, and latterly China as a power house of manufacturing and economic growth. Through all this the myth of the porcelain continues to bubble.

There is so much in this book - part memoir, part travelogue, art history lesson, China's story over last 130 years. Huan Hsu is a very engaging and talented writer, with an inquiring and open mind to all that is going on around him - a true traveller. I enjoyed it very much and learnt a lot about what modern day China is like, the opening up to the West, the still many, many untold stories of dislocation, 're-education', oppression, starvation, torture. And is there reconciliation for the family in unearthing the family treasure? Well, that would be telling, and would take away from the journey of discovery that this whole book is.