The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

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I have been in interested in The Cat’s Table since I read a glowing review of it some time back. So when I stumbled on it in the audiobook section of the local library I picked it up. And I started listening to it in the car, but the author’s voice was too quiet or subdued or something. I just couldn’t focus on the story in that format. So I switched to reading it on my Kindle.

catstable_custom-3a4d9d88c1df994cd226baa9afdf5aa63866a978-s99-c85In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy in Colombo boards a ship bound for England. At mealtimes he is seated at the “cat’s table”—as far from the Captain’s Table as can be—with a ragtag group of “insignificant” adults and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. As the ship makes its way across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, the boys tumble from one adventure to another, bursting all over the place like freed mercury. But there are other diversions as well: one man talks with them about jazz and women, another opens the door to the world of literature. The narrator’s elusive, beautiful cousin Emily becomes his confidante, allowing him to see himself “with a distant eye” for the first time, and to feel the first stirring of desire. Another Cat’s Table denizen, the shadowy Miss Lasqueti, is perhaps more than what she seems. And very late every night, the boys spy on a shackled prisoner, his crime and his fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever.

As the narrative moves between the decks and holds of the ship and the boy’s adult years, it tells a spellbinding story—by turns poignant and electrifying—about the magical, often forbidden, discoveries of childhood and a lifelong journey that begins unexpectedly with a spectacular sea voyage.

Once I made the switch from audio to text, I really enjoyed the story for the most part.  But I felt like it got a little sideways at the end.

It could be that I was reading it in smaller segments at night before bed, but the flipping back between his childhood trip on the ship and the present day got a little confusing. All of the present day threads began to get tangled up. His marriage, his relationship with his cousin, his attempts to put together what exactly happened on the ship on that fateful night so many years ago, etc.

But I did enjoy the way Ondaatje crafted this story, populated it with a great cast of characters, set in a historical setting, and then attempted to plot out how a three-week trip and the interaction of all these lives might impact the characters afterwards.

Perhaps not surprising given Ondaatje’s background, there is a real poetic sense or feel to the writing. The early vignettes are beautiful sketches that take the reader back in time and allows them to picture this odd collection of table mates bringing all their histories and personalities to the trip.

But at some point this poetic impressionistic story becomes a mystery and then an attempt to unpack the impact of this mystery years later. And for me the changing styles just didn’t work together all that well towards the end. Kind of drained the magic out of the book for me to a degree.

This is my first Ondaatje book so I can’t compare it to anything else (no, I haven’t even read the award-winning The English Patient or watched the movie). But I really liked the first three-quarters of The Cat’s Table. I might need to check out some more of this author’s work.  Any recommendations on where to start?

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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