‘The Cat’s Table’ by Michael Ondaatje

Cat's-table

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 304 pages; 2011.

Going by the cover image of the UK edition of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Tablethe Canadian version is slightly more understated — anyone would think this was a story set on a ship. In fact, if you read the first 100 or so pages of this novel you’d probably think this was a fair assumption to make.

But Ondaatje gives the book a twist mid-way through, which suggests this story is really about the transformative journey we all make from childhood to adulthood. The ship is merely a metaphor for a rite of passage.

In some ways, The Cat’s Table is a novel of two halves. The first is set on an ocean-liner — the Oronsay — bound for England from Ceylon (before it became Sri Lanka) in the early 1950s, and the second is the long-lasting effect that three-week journey had on an 11-year-old boy, who made the trip alone to be with the London-based mother he hadn’t seen for several years.

The story is narrated by Michael — nicknamed “Mynah” — who befriends two other young solo travellers, Ramadhin and Cassius, who sit with him on Table 76, the farthest from the highly desirable Captain’s Table.

“We seem to be at the cat’s table,” the woman called Miss Lasqueti said. “We’re in the least privileged place.”

As the ship ploughs its way across the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea, before heading into the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal, Michael revels in his new-found freedom:

I had no family responsibilities. I could go anywhere, do anything. And Ramadhin, Cassius and I had already established one rule. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden.

Part of the excitement for the boys is the knowledge that there’s a prisoner on board — and they go out of their way to witness his night-time walks in which he is chained and shackled. At the other end of the social spectrum, the boys experience the upper classes for the first time — those that are travelling first class or dining with the captain — and what they see fascinates and occasionally appalls them by turn. (Racism is a recurring theme.)

But for the most part, they befriend the adults on their table — among them “Mr Mazappa and his musical legends and Mr Fonseka with his songs from the Azores and Mr Daniels with his plants” — and get drawn into their worlds, sometimes with dramatic consequences. Michael even develops a close friendship with his older cousin, who is travelling onboard, and experiences a sexual awakening without quite comprehending it.

Much of the early section of the book is told in short chapters focusing on specific passengers — pen portraits, for want of a better description — that allows you to build up a picture of what it was like on board and how much of an adventure it must have seemed for a young lad.

But the beauty of Ondaajte’s deeply reflective narrative, that ebbs and flows much like the waters upon which his ship is cast, is the way in which the adult Michael, looking back on his life, manages to figure out how the journey changed him as a person, how it shaped his outlook, his values and his relationships.

The three weeks of the sea journey, as I originally remembered it, were placid. It is only now, years later, having been prompted by my children to describe the voyage, that it becomes an adventure, when seen through their eyes, even something significant in a life. A rite of passage. But the truth is, grandeur had not been added to my life but had been taken away.

This not a plot-driven novel, nor is it a character-led one. But its interleaved storyline, switching between the past and the present, is strangely compelling — even with Ondaatje’s cool, detached tone (reminscent, I must say, of Ishiguro’s in Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Night, which I read last month) you want to keep turning the pages.

Despite its strengths, I came away from the book not feeling any great love for it. Perhaps it might be one of those novels that needs time to ferment in the mind a little longer than the four days between reading the last page and writing this review.

The Cat’s Table has been longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. For another take on this novel please see KevinfromCanada’s review.  

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20 thoughts on “‘The Cat’s Table’ by Michael Ondaatje

  1. You and Dovegreyreader seem to have blogendipity today with this novel, and it’s interesting to see the rather different takes on it. I’m not sure about this book (yes, it’s the boat factor) yet the author is one of those that I have always felt like I should have read. Especially as The English Patient is such a modern classic. Maybe I should start with that one?
    Kim, please, please read Jamrach’s Menagerie when you can (I know your going Giller mad) because it’s a great story involving a ship and also has a sense of coming of age too whilst just being brilliant. Though I know some might think differently lol.

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  2. It is a striking cover, isnt it?
    I do think you do need to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate this book. There are lots of stories within stories and anecdotal passages and beautiful reflections on love and friendship, but if you are looking for something with a bit more focus and a bit more drive, it probably wont deliver.

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  3. Really? I must go check dovegreys blog!
    Admittedly, I tried to read The English Patient the year it won the Booker (1992?), but I didnt get very far with it. I was in my early 20s at the time and it was just a little too out of my comfort zone. I suspect I would quite enjoy it now. By contrast, the film is one of my all-time favourites!
    Thanks for the tip-off about Jamrachs Menagerie — I do like a good novel set on a ship.

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  4. If thats the case, you will find this one very rewarding, Alex.
    I must say I do like his restrained prose-style, which is something Ishiguro does very well, too. Im not sure McEwan writes the same way, but I have only read two or three so cannot really compare.

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  5. I am still reading this novel. The ship has just left the Suez Canal.
    What I find disturbing is that children were allowed to travel so far all alone. Pedeophiles existed then. I guess parents were trusting of people?

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  6. Despite really disliking The English Patient when I read it years ago, I’m quite intrigued by this one. I’m glad to be a bit more cautious going into it, however, so thank you for your review. I’m curious to see how I fare with it.

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  7. I’m about two-thirds through, and am liking it much more than I expected to. I’m not one for boat stories; I find it quite compelling in a 1001 nights way, how one story leads to another.

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  8. Sounds good,actually, but I am not one for the child narrator. This one is told partly by the child and partly by the man, though, isn’t it?
    Couldn’t stand the bloody English Patient.

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  9. I loved his earlier books in coming through slaughter was wonderful set in new orleans ,I was huge fan of english patient but have to admit the two since the amil and divisadero are on my shelves un read just nervous of being let down by a writer who earlier works I ve loved and this seems same as them a little bit of a let down after EP that ssaid the fact that even thou partly set on a ship that does grab me ,all the best stu

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  10. Do come back when you’ve finished, Isabella, and let us know your final conclusion on it. I must admit I quite like books set on boats — but in real life I’m a tad prone to seasickness.

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  11. It’s really told by a man all the way through — he’s looking back on his childhood, so there’s no child narrator as such.
    Now tell us how you really feel about the English Patient! 😉

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  12. I had the same reaction as you with The English Patient! But I think I’d like to read it again to see if I’ll feel different. I have this one and will take it with me when I next visit Sri Lanka. I went to see Ondaatje talk at the British Museum earlier this month and he did a reading. His prose was lovely so I’m looking forward to reading this.

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  13. This was the last of my Giller-longlisted reads; I was anxious because I’d heard so many people express disappointment, and because I do need to approach his works with a particular focus, and it’s not a state that comes along very often. Fortunately, it must have been the perfect confluence of happenings, for I sank into this book completely and came to surface completely satisfied with the telling.
    One aspect of this cover art that I do like is that it mirrors the statement in the novel that suggests that something interesting is always happening where you’re not watching; it’s easy to imagine dramatic events playing out on those smaller vessels, even while we’re immersed, as readers, in the events on the cat’s table on the boat alongside.

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  14. hello i read the book and i found it interesting during the end, but a bit too long. please can someone teel me the themes on the book and an explanation ill really appreciate it

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