The Cat in the Coffin by Mariko Koike Novel Review

Title:  The Cat in the Coffin

Author: Mariko Koike

Publisher: Vertical

ISBN: 9781932234121

May Contain Spoilers

When Masayo is offered the opportunity of a lifetime, the aspiring artist just can’t turn it down.  Though it sounds too good to be true, she packs up her bags and heads off to Tokyo, where she will be a live-in housekeeper for artist Goro Kawakubo.  In addition, she will also tutor his young daughter, Momoko, a quiet, withdrawn little girl whose only friend is a pure white cat named Lala.  When the beautiful Chinatsu captures Goro’s attention, will the peaceful tranquility of the Kawakubo household be destroyed forever?

The Cat in the Coffin is an intriguing coming of age story about a twenty year old woman from the rustic town of Hakodate.  Masayo leaves everything that is familiar behind when, in 1955, she boards a train to Tokyo to work for Goro Kawakubo.  Though she will be working as a live-in housekeeper and a tutor for his young daughter, she has really taken the job because he has promised to give her a weekly art lesson.  From a humble background, the prospect of chasing her dream of becoming an artist is too tantalizing to ignore.  Masayo longs for more out of life than the path that had currently been available to her; she wants to do more than help her mother run her modest flower shop.

Once in Tokyo, Masayo meets the charismatic Goro, a cultured man in his thirties.  A widower, Goro doesn’t have the time to devote to domestic chores, but he wants a feminine presence in his house for his daughter.  He is also the life of the party, and throws soirées at his home every weekend.  He is a complicated individual, highly sought after for his wealth and quick-wit.  It’s not long before Masayo has fallen entirely under his charming spell.   The naive girl never stood a chance against him, and she is way out of her league with her employer, but that doesn’t stop her from foolishly daydreaming about him, or wishing that they could live together in happiness with his daughter Momoko.

Momoko , like her father, is charming and attractive.  Masayo can’t resist Momoko’s charms, either, and she spends her first months in the Kawakubo household trying to earn her affections.  Momoko is a somber child, a girl who has withdrawn into a protective cocoon since the death of her mother.  Her only companion is the white cat, Lala, and Momoko eschews human contact.  She is a challenge Masayo can’t resist, and the young woman expends a lot of energy crafting ways to break through the barriers Momoko has erected around herself.

As one day turns into the next, Masayo falls into a comfortable rhythm in the Kawakubo household.  She lives for both Goro and Momoko, cooking up elaborate dreams where the three of them live together forever.  When the unthinkable happens, and the scheming Chinatsu tries to worm her way into Goro’s heart, both Momoko and Masayo struggle against the inevitable.  Chinatsu is elegant and beautiful, possessing the forceful personality of a tsunami.  Once she arrives on the scene, nothing is as it was, and nothing can ever go back to the way it was.  She has changed the pattern of the Kawakubo house as violently as an earthquake.

Through all of this, the white cat, Lala, stalks the halls and fields surrounding the family estate.  Lala is as demanding a presence as the humans in The Cat in the Coffin, and she is the catalyst for disaster and heartbreak.  After the death of her mother, Momoko has embraced the cat as her surrogate mother, and the two of them are never far apart.  They share a deep and intense understanding of each other, and even Masayo finds herself becoming attached to the feline.  Before long, the young girl, woman, and cat are constant companions, roaming the barley fields and sharing dreams and adventures on the way.  When Chinatsu blows into their lives, their serenity is destroyed forever.

Once I picked up The Cat in the Coffin, I found it very difficult to put down.  The tale is a little slow paced, as the author builds tension for an explosive conflict that shatters the lives of all of the characters.  No one is left immune, tranquility is destroyed, and nothing that Masayo does makes any difference in the end.  She is given a shot at a dream, it’s within her grasp, but she can never hold it or control it, not even for a moment.  She is almost as childish as Momoko in her outlook, where fantasy and reality clash uncomfortably, forcing her to reassess herself and everyone around her.  Jealousy is a destructive force that can’t be dodged, and it rips through the fabric of Masayo’s existence.

This is a study into how destructive love can be.  Selfish love corrupts and taints, leading to unhappiness and self-destruction.  Through it all, Masayo gently narrates the biggest regret of her life.  The events that take place in the Kawakubo house leave their mark on her, one that years of self-recrimination can ever heal.  Masayo’s descent from idealistic young woman to jaded recluse is a train wreck of emotions, one that is compelling and hard to ignore.  Even given the knowledge at the beginning of the journey that tragedy lurks around the corner, you can’t turn away from the disaster. 

Grade: B

Review copy provided by Vertical Inc