Mariko Koike is one of Japan’s best known women writers, having built a reputation on the popularity of her romance and detective novels, short stories and essays. While winning critical and commercial acclaim in Japan, along with a string of award, she has of yet failed to gain popularity outside her home country, mainly due to the obvious language barriers. Which is way I was particularly interested when publishers Vertical Inc sent me a copy of her first novel to be translated into English, The Cat in the Coffin.
The story follows aspiring young artist Masayo, who moves to Tokyo to work for artist Goro Kawakubo as a live in housekeeper and tutor to his daughter Momoko. It seems like a dream opportunity for her; a generous salary, accommodation in the city and – most importantly – one-on-one art lessons from widower Goro, the son of a far more famous Japanese artist.
Things, however, do not go exactly to plan. For a start young Momoko is increasingly reserved after the death of her mother, retreating into a world where her main companion is her cat Lala, with Masayo struggling to communicate with her outside of the classroom. To complicate matters even more, Masayo finds herself falling for the suave, dominering and – at times – slightly creepy Goro. Just as she’s making headway with both, things take a tuen for the worse, when Goro meets, and starts having a relationship with the glamourous but cat-hating Chinatsu.
Not surprisingly most of the story centers around the resulting love triangle, but to dismiss the book as yet another ‘chick-lit’ romance novel. This was certainly my fear when I first picked it up – especially as someone that, although obsessed with many aspects of J-culture, tries hard to not enthuse about something just because ‘it’s from Japan'; those of you familiar with my views on J-Pop and high school anime dramas will have heard the rant before.
But The Cat in the Coffin goes deeper than that. From even the earliest chapters there’s a darker edge to proceedings, and Koike succeeds in portraying a sense of the awkwardness of 1950s Japan as it undergoes shifts in its social and sexual structures. To this male reader the character of Goro comes over as somewhat creepy and insidious from the very start, although perhaps the aim is for female readers to find his dominating sexual arrogance attractive, as the female protagonists do.
It’s certainly an accessible book – feeling perhaps a little too so for my personal tastes at times, although it’s unclear whether the sometimes simple writing style is Koike’s own or a byproduct of the (excellent) translation by Deborah Boliver Boehm. It’s short too, making the book a great wet weekend read or – as I found – the great way to fill a nine-hour long haul flight. If you fancy a bit of darkly tinged romance or a quick sample from the world of Japanese woman’s writing, plus a way of supporting one of the most interesting independent translating publishers around at the moment, The Cat in the Coffin is well worth picking up.