The Guest Cat: The unlikeliest festive bestseller

Nick Duerden discovers why a simple, short story of a couple and a feline resonates with its readers on so many levels

Occasionally at Christmas time, there emerges, among the dreck that publishers like to foist upon us, a book genuinely worthy of bestseller status. This year, it is an unlikely one: The Guest Cat, which is neither celebrity biography nor novelty joke compendium, though it does feature another staple of surefire bestseller status these days: cats.

It is, however, no ordinary pet memoir. In The Guest Cat, a slim, 136-page novel by the Japanese writer Takashi Hiraide, a cat one day wanders into the house, and lives, of a thirty-something couple. The husband and wife, both writers, do not have children and their marriage has grown stale as they lose themselves in their work. They coax the cat into staying, and learn that his name is Chibi. Chibi is aloof and temperamental as only the very best cats can be, but his presence gradually draws them away from their desks and into the garden, where, for a time, all is well.

And that, aside from the occasional discourse on the Tokyo rental market and musings on philosophy and Machiavelli, is that.

The book was published by Picador in September to little attention and scant reviews. But booksellers loved it. They placed it in their windows, on their front tables, and it is easy to see why: although the story is plain and spare, and somewhat reminiscent of Hiraide's countryman Haruki Murakami (who has also written about cats, albeit cats that talk), it is clearly allegorical and laden with a piercing pathos that resonates with all who read it. Just a few months after publication, it has sold 20,000 copies, an unimaginable figure for a title without a marketing campaign. It is now set to be among December's top sellers and is already the biggest-selling paperback of the year at one branch of Waterstones, in London's Gower Street.

"It's such an easy book to sell," says the branch's manager, Alison Belshaw. "There is the physicality of the book for starters: it looks beautiful. It's also short. In a time of social media, which has narrowed people's attention spans, short is good. And you can read it as a simple story, or see all sorts of depths to it."

Picador, inevitably, is thrilled. "I don't think I've ever seen such an organic word-of-mouth development for a book before," says Hiraide's publisher, Kris Doyle. "It's become a hit simply because people have such a passion for it, and also because of its carpe diem ethos, its sense of mindfulness. Yes, it is ostensibly about a cat, but it's more than that. It's about how to manage your relationship, how observant we are in the world, in nature. The scenes of them playing with Chibi in the garden remind us how beautiful the world can be, and how much we miss of it when we keep our heads down at work. The whole thing has a fabular quality to it."

Hiraide, born in Moji in 1950 and ostensibly a poet, has rarely been published outside of Japan. But his elliptical tale about a cat – who was, he confirms to The Independent, quite real, and did come to enrich his and his wife's lives – is now a quiet literary sensation. It has already been a bestseller in America and France and will be published in 15 other countries. Hiraide doesn't speak much English, and so elects to be interviewed via email. Here, he is winningly inscrutable. Of the melancholy at the heart of the book, he writes: "It's impossible to talk about true sadness". And of what it's like to be an unexpected global bestseller, and quite so high on people's Christmas gift wish lists, he simply says: "I have no actual feelings yet".

It is to his benefit, then, that others do. Alison Belshaw tells of a man who came into the shop yesterday looking for a sci-fi novel. "And I sent him away with The Guest Cat," she says, laughing. "It's that kind of book. You want to recommend it to everyone."

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