Books, Venue

The Cat and the City: intricate and charming debut from UEA Creative Writing MA graduate (review and interview)

The Cat and the City, the debut novel of UEA alumnus Nick Bradley, is a wonderfully crafted love letter to Tokyo and its ever-changing inhabitants. Centred around the movements of a wandering calico cat, we are taken on a seamless journey, meeting characters who are more intertwined than perhaps they (and we) initially think. It is a narrative feat so carefully woven, the sort that makes you smile to yourself when you realise how a new character or a new place fits in with the rest of the novel. 

Like many writers, Bradley’s authorly journey started early: “I suppose I was very young, and it was when I first began reading books. I immediately thought to myself, “Who came up with this? It seems like fun. I want to do this!”

“I’d spent my childhood daydreaming and visualizing scenes in my mind (even before I could read or write) and it was at the point of reading that I realised I could put this cinematic daydreaming to good use. So, I suppose I’ve spent the majority of my life wanting to write and publish a novel. But even though I’ve been writing for a long time, I was quite shy and never tried to do anything with my writing. The first time I really tried was when I applied to do the Creative Writing MA at UEA. Before that, I just kept things to myself, or only showed close friends.

“Specifically, I began writing this book when I started the MA in Creative Writing at UEA back in the autumn of 2015.”

The cat is a fairly common figure in Japanese literature – take Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, or Genki Kawamura’s If Cats Disappeared from the World, for example – and Bradley explains the literary phenomenon that he eventually went on to explore as part of his PhD thesis: “I suppose it was interesting to me how the cat is almost like the weather in English literature. We talk about the pathetic fallacy in English literature, but in Japanese literature there is something I’ve coined as the purr-thetic fur-llacy (sorry!) where the behaviour of a cat in a book reflects the emotions of the characters within the story.

“On a literal level, I also spent a lot of time walking the streets near my apartment in Tokyo, looking at all the stray cats and wondering what they get up to when I wasn’t around – the kinds of private scenes they witnessed. I also found their cool indiscriminate gaze looking back at me somewhat comforting. They didn’t care who I was, or where I was from – I was just another human to them. And I liked that sense of comradery I had with the street cats.” The cat that prowls through the pages (and features on the front cover) expertly balances disdainful and loveable – a character in its own right, without even needing to speak. 

When asked whether the novel was inspired by his own experiences, Bradley replies: “How could it not be? Everything we write is a product of what we have seen, heard, felt, tasted, smelt, and experienced.” This is evidenced, particularly, by the inclusion of phrases and words in Japanese, something that Bradley intended to replicate “that sense of wonder” he himself felt upon not speaking the language. One of the novel’s primary aims was to “introduce Japanese language and Tokyo culture to English-speaking readers who perhaps hadn’t had exposure to these things”, successfully carried out through casually dropping vocabulary into the story; my personal favourite phrase, as a reader, being tsundoku, an untranslatable word that means “buying books and piling them up on a shelf without reading them”.

What makes the novel so light on its feet is the quick-changing perspectives; with each new character, the reader is drawn into a completely different narrative voice, and Bradley seamlessly switches between first and third person perspectives. He explains that “changing POV as well as narrative style in each chapter suited the concept of building up a massive, chaotic city like Tokyo – the differences in style became the consistency while writing.” Similarly, while undertaking the Creative Writing MA, Bradley mentions he was “always trying something new, and experimenting”, which paved the way for such an ambitious amalgamation of viewpoints and stories in his novel.

With these differing perspectives in mind, some chapters do seem more nonsensically linked than others; perhaps, through a cat-appropriate simile, if the book were a ball of yarn, some narratives exist as loose threads, tied in but still noticeably adjacent to the deeply connected core of the novel. However, we never lose sight of what’s important; the cat, above all, is the first and foremost link in the chain. 

A multi-faceted work that features haikus, photographs, and stories within stories, The Cat and the City is a charmingly intricate work that grows only more satisfying the further you descend into it. The novel is a testimony to Tokyo and Japanese life, and is infused with love for the place. When asked about his favourite aspects of the country, Bradley lists: “The food! And the rest: the lovely people, the beautiful scenery, the trains, the language, the culture, the temples, the shrines, travelling, the islands, the ocean, the mountains, the literature, the cinema, the art…”

He adds, “…oh, and of course, the cats!”


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05/08/2020

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Ally Fowler