Japanese Title: 柩の中の猫 (Hitsugi no naka no neko)
Author: Mariko Koike (小池 真理子)
Translator: Deborah Boliver Boehm
Publication Year: 1990 (Japan); 2009 (United States)
According to the back cover copy, The Cat in the Coffin is “a gem of a modern update on the governess genre immortalized by Jane Eyre and ‘The Turn of the Screw’ [and a] hypnotic thriller that lures the reader into the darkness of the human heart,” which is as good of a description as any. The Cat in the Coffin is a story about family, desire, love, malice, and a cat at the center of a chilling murder.
Masayo, an aspiring artist from Hokkaido who has just turned twenty, moves to Tokyo to be a live-in housekeeper and caretaker for Momoko, the eight-year-old daughter of a semi-famous artist and college professor named Goro Kawakubo. The year is 1955, and Goro has embraced a modern American lifestyle of cocktails and garden parties after the tragic death of his wife. Masayo cares little for fashion or the glamor of high society, but she is enchanted by Momoko, who speaks to no one except her white cat Lala. Masayo bonds with Momoko through their shared love of Lala, and they become fast friends.
Everything goes well until a startlingly beautiful woman named Chinatsu shows up at one of Goro’s parties. Chinatsu worked as a translator and lived with her husband in America before becoming a widow and returning to Japan. Despite her air of cosmopolitan sophistication, Chinatsu is thoughtful and kind. Goro is clearly in love with her, but both Masayo and Momoko are ambivalent. After all, if Goro marries Chinatsu, there will be no need for Masayo to remain in the house as Momoko’s caretaker.
All of the characters in The Cat in the Coffin are good people, but they’re imperfect in small but significant ways. Goro takes his relationship with Chinatsu slowly so that his daughter will be comfortable with the woman who will replace her mother, but he is perhaps a little too willing to leave his daughter entirely to Masayo’s care. Momoko understandably misses her mother and craves her father’s affection, but her grief has caused her to become isolated and antisocial. Masayo tries her hardest to do what’s best for Momoko, but her crush on Goro causes her to give Chinatsu a cold shoulder.
The comparisons to Jane Eyre and “The Turn of the Screw” are apt, as Masayo’s idealized longing for Goro and Momoko’s aggressive strangeness create a difficult situation for Chinatsu, whose only flaw is that she isn’t able to conceal her dislike of Lala. Chinatsu gradually succumbs to a delusion that everything will work out if she no longer has to compete for Momoko’s affection with a cat, and she ends up taking drastic action in secret. Masayo witnesses her terrible act, which creates a terrible psychological burden she is unable to bear. The suspense of The Cat in the Coffin thus lies in witnessing a modestly happy household’s slow dissolution in a boiling pot of misdirected passion and ice-cold rage.
The Cat in the Coffin can also be read as a sustained exploration of Masayo’s fear of growing up as she longs for independence but still clings to childhood, sinking herself into a codependent relationship with Momoko and Lala instead of building a working friendship with Chinatsu, who represents her anxiety of adult sexuality. Meanwhile, although Chinatsu is only a secondary character from Masayo’s perspective, her life history is fascinating, and its eventual revelation is quite dramatic. Chinatsu’s story is reminiscent of The Great Gatsby in her ambition and failed pursuit of the American dream, and it’s precisely because of her progressive American approach to Momoko that their relationship is so disastrous.
The Cat in the Coffin begins at a somewhat leisurely pace, but the suspense is slowly amplified throughout the novel, which is neatly structured and short enough to be read in one or two sittings. The ending is highly satisfying, as is the frame narrative, in which Masayo, now a famous artist, relates the story of Momoko, Chinatsu, and Lala to her own housekeeper. The well-edited and well-executed translation keeps the action moving at a brisk pace, making The Cat in the Coffin an enjoyable book to binge. This psychological thriller is lean and sharp and almost painfully insightful, and I especially recommend it to fans of Japanese cat novels who are interested in something domestic that still has its claws.