February 24, 2012 by Kelly Gass
“The Cat’s Table” by Michael Ondaatje
This book describes a sea voyage by an 11-year-old boy. He is traveling from Sri Lanka to London in the early 1950s on a ship titled Oronsay. The boy’s name is Michael and he is to meet his mother in Lon- don.
Michael has very little supervision on the voyage, even though a non-vigilant chaperone has promised to look after him. He has a couple of close friends on the voy- age who are roughly his age. His friends’ names are Cassius and Ramadhin. The three boys have their meals at the “Cat’s Table” – meaning it is the table farthest separated from the Captain’s table in proximity and in social station.
Michael and his two pals share the table with a few mostly misfit adults, who make for interesting camaraderie. Having little supervision, Michael and his pals naturally get into their share of trouble. They also learn a lot about adults and the “games” older people play. The three boys find the adults intriguing and this keeps them guessing about what they may be hiding.
Some of the adults have secretive lives and the boys go on clandestine missions each day in order to unravel some of these mysteries. Plenty of mayhem occurs on the ship, including murder, and the boys are of- ten in the thick of it.
There are plenty of colorful characters, including a dangerous shackled prisoner, acrobatic performers, and a dying millionaire. One of the passengers, Mr. Daniels, who also dines at the Cat’s Table, has a garden on the ship wherein he grows many exotic plants.
Eventually the ship reaches its destination in London. Michael then reunites with his mother. The story continues into Michael’s adulthood, where his perception of life is often colored by his experiences on
the ship that happened years before.
The story is told in a narrative, first-per- son style. The narration sometimes jumps between the present, past, and future – but for the most part, it is easy enough to follow.
Although this book is a work of fiction, one cannot help but think the Sri Lankan born author, Michael Ondaatje, is giving us a glimpse of his life as a young boy. In fact, in an NPR interview, the author claims he got the idea for the story from a sea voyage he took when he was young. The author has impressive credentials, including the book “The English Patient,” which was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film.
In my seldom regarded opinion, this is not a great book, in spite of the many accolades and raving reviews it has gotten. But at its worst, the author has written an entertaining and intimate story dealing with the coming-of-age of three boys set in an intriguing place and time.
I really enjoyed reading this book. You can pick up a copy of “The Cat’s Table” in the new book section of the West Fork Library.