Losing a pet can be devastating, especially at young age. When Lukas, a six-year-old boy, gets a black cat as a birthday present, he can’t foresee the happiness or the pain his pet will bring.
Ein Kater schwarz wie die Nacht (Henning Mankell, German version printed by btv junior, 127 pages), released in English as The Cat Who Liked Rain, is a sweet book about the excitement of having a pet and the sorrow of watching it go. This is so remarkably the strongest point approached by this book it’s not even a spoiler to say that the cat disappears – it happens so early in the beginning of the book the reader wonders if the author couldn’t at least let poor Lukas have a tiny bit more fun with his pet.
The story is well written and readers will instantly fall in love with Munkel, a cat that, much like other cats, lives his life the way he wants to, but loves his owner very much. Lukas is also a very believable character: his insecurities and fantasies are very well told, as if the author could perfectly get inside a six-year-old’s head; his relationship with his older brother, Wirbel, and his parents is described in a very simple manner, which only makes it sound more real. The anxiety to go to school, the desperate search for Munkel, everything in this book is coherent and sweet, which is of the essence when one has children, perhaps the most critical readers there are, as an audience.
Even though the book is quite charming, I must say that I was left with the impression that the author spends perhaps too much time describing the search for Munkel. The cat disappears, as I said, right on the beginning of the book, and then it all becomes a seemingly endless searching-not-finding-searching-again plot. It became tiresome even for me (and I’m 22 years old), which only makes me wonder if it would keep children interested for long. Maybe the idea is to divide the reading through many days at bedtime, but I still can’t imagine a kid being happy with the same plot for very long. Lukas and Munkel are, however, good enough characters to make it all worth it and keep readers rooting for them until the very last page.
The end (don’t worry, I’m not spilling it out) does make up for the slow development. It’s both satisfying and believable. That is actually one of the greatest virtues of Henning Mankell’s book: in a time of otherworldly, magical, sometimes exaggerated children books, it’s nice to read something that is the simple story of a regular boy and his regular cat. No witches, no spells, no magical creatures. Just the bond between a kid and his pet.
As a side note, I must say that I read this in German as an attempt to finish my first book on the language, which I have been learning for the past four years. As a C1-level student, I found this to be a great read, both full of vocabulary I didn’t know and easy enough to allow me to deduce those words through the context. It was also great to be in touch with so many verbs in Präteritum, since most of what I read is written in Perfekt. I think anyone starting B1 would be able to read this, even if a dictionary is of the essence. It’s great practice!
I highly recommend this both to those learning German and (in whichever translation you prefer, since the book is actually Swedish) to all lovers of children books. We are in part, after all, still the kids we once were, with or without a sweet, black cat named Munkel.