Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Michael Ondaatje, naval, Publisher, Vintage Digital

‘The Cat’s Table’ by Michael Ondaatje


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.  

Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, naval, Publisher, Putnam, S. Thomas Russell

‘Under Enemy Colors’ by S. Thomas Russell


Fiction – hardcover; Putnam Publishing Group; 368 pages; 2007. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

Although I’m not an expert on the naval genre, many of my favourite novels — Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea and Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers — have been seafaring adventures, so I had rather high expectations for S. Thomas Russell’s Under Enemy Colors. I’m pleased to say I was not disappointed.

Set on board a newly-built British frigate, the Themis, during the French Revolution, it tells the story of two very different men working for the King’s Navy.

The ship’s captain, Josiah Hart, is a notorious coward and an incompetent, bumbling, tyrannical leader, but the Admiralty has turned a blind eye to his failings because he is very well connected through Mrs Hart’s family.

Charles Saunders Hayden, a seafaring man of impeccable ability, is his (reluctant) first lieutenant who has been secretly engaged to inform on Hart’s exploits. Hayden, who feels the role is beneath him, has only accepted the job because his parentage — his father is British, his mother French — has often been used to (wrongly) call his loyalty into question, and to refuse it would only jeopardise his career in the Navy.

During the ship’s adventure-filled voyage into French waters, Hayden finds himself increasingly stuck between duty and honour, between a tyrannical leader, who thinks nothing of belittling him in public, and a disaffected crew with leanings towards violence and possible mutiny…

I have to say that I loved this book from the outset. Thomas Russell has an immediate and an easy-to-read voice  that rings with period authenticity. He’s a master at suspense and is so good at capturing that sense of injustice that sets the reader’s teeth on edge this book should have come with a health warning.

His vast cast of characters are imbued with a realism that is hard to fault. This is impressive given that Captain Hart could have so easily been turned into an over-the-top caricature.  My only quibble is that Hayden’s personal struggle to come to terms with his identity as half-French half-English was laboured a little too strongly — such a dilemma wears thin after it’s been mentioned more than a dozen times.

As for the narrative, there’s certainly plenty of action and adventure, most of which is thoroughly entertaining. But I felt the book would have benefited from the judicious omission of a seafaring battle or two. Personally, I wanted to cut to the chase, and not revel in the guts and gunshots, of which there is much. And the ending, which is satisfying, also raises more questions than it answers, but that’s no bad thing…

All up, Under Enemy Colors is the perfect mix of character- and action-driven entertainment, with a heady dose of history and humanity thrown in for good measure.  It will appeal to those who love historical fiction or seafaring adventures or just want to get lost in a good old-fashioned action story.

Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, Joseph O'Connor, literary fiction, naval, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Star of the Sea’ by Joseph O’Connor


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 410 pages; 2003.

This is quite simply a stunning achievement.

Joseph O’Connor‘s Star of the Sea is a gripping story set on a New York-bound ship filled with hundreds of refugees fleeing the Irish potato famine in 1847. But this is not the usual “Irish potato famine fare” you might expect. It’s a complete reworking, not just of the 19th century disaster that was the famine, but of the naval-based novel and, indeed, the novel in general.

O’Connor’s tome is incredibly detailed and multi-layered. There are stories within stories, each one marking a different place on the social spectrum: the cunning criminal; the downtrodden maid looking to start a new life; an American journalist who records it all; and a victimised landlord and his unhappy wife. The beauty of O’Connor’s magnificent novel is that each of these vastly different characters is inextricably linked in ways that they will never know.

Star of the Sea is a mesmerising tale that will take readers to new, uncharted territory. It is sad, funny, violent, depressing, grim, shameful, shocking and uplifting. O’Connor, the brother of Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, weaves a wonderful, clever narrative together, swinging effortlessly between past and present, on board the ship and in Ireland. But it’s the ending which will leave you gasping for more as you suddenly comprehend how all the different strands of the story have come together without you ever realising.

More please.