The Cat's Table
Michael Ondaatje, 2011
Book Review by Molly Lundquist
A stunner—beautiful, elusive, mysterious. The Cat's Table explores how events of childhood, fleeting and often perplexing, have the power to shape the adults we become.
As Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) writes, in the voice of his now older character, childhood "smuggled us away accidentally, with no knowledge of the act, into the future."
On a voyage from Sri Lanka to England in 1954, 11-year-old Michael finds himself seated not at the Captain's Table, where the rich and powerful sit on full display, but at the Cat's Table, the spot reserved for the least privileged passengers. It would be hard to find four more idiosycratic tablemates than the adults assigned to his table, yet each will figure some way in Michael's shipboard experience.
As he admits years later, "it would always be strangers like them, at the various cat’s tables of my life, who would alter me." Rounding out the table are two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin, who will become Michael's boon companions in his escapades onboard the Oronsay.
The ocean liner, a world unto itself, is like all literary ships—a microcosm of the larger world. The voyage serves as a metaphor for passage between the childhood the boys left behind in Sri Lanka and the young adults they will become in England.
A slender volume, The Cat's Table is not to be taken lightly. Rife with poignant insights, luminous prose, and gorgeous imagery, the novel is a hefty read. It slips easily into different time frames, moving between the voyage of the Oronsay and the adult Michael's reflections on the meaning of his 21 days at sea. The book isn't so much plotted as made up of a series of delightful, almost picaresque episodes—of boys having marvelous (in the true sense of the word) adventures at sea, the freedom to explore the ship and to cause no end of trouble. These episodes are juxtaposed by commentary from a sadder, wiser Michael—whose adult life the reader can't help but feel is pallid in comparison.
Read this gorgeous book! If you're in a book club, the central question to talk about is what Michael learns onboard the Oronsay...or what he comes to realize, later, about the voyage and the way in which it altered his life.
See our Reading Guide for The Cat's Table.
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