What can I say about Michael Ondaatje? I can say that I truly enjoyed THE CAT’S TABLE. I honestly wasn’t sure I would. I knew I loved the cover. I also knew I liked the title. After all, it has the word “cat” on it. But, I haven’t always been a fan of Ondaatje. I am one of the few people who actually did not like THE ENGLISH PATIENT. I know, it won all sorts of awards. Hey, it just didn’t do it for me.
I crept into this new novel with no expectations. I fell in love with the story, the main character, and the short, informative chapters. Michael (nicknamed Mynah) is 11 year’s old in 1954 when the story begins. He is in a car enroute to board a ship named the Oronsay. It is bound for England from what was then Ceylon. Ceylon is our Sri Lanka now. Michael will be sailing unaccompanied by an adult. Even though a much older cousin, Emily, is also making the passage, she is settled in a much finer area of the ship. Michael is really on his own, sans adults. Michael will be joining his mother and finishing his education in England.
On the first night, at dinner, Michael meets his tablemates. They are all assigned to sit at what is called the Cat’s Table. It is the furthermost table from the Captain’s Table. Hm. Meaning the least desirable passengers are seated together. What a cast of characters they are. There, Michael meets two other boys his age. Cassius proves to be a tough troublemaker, while quieter Ramadhin is more bookish and safe. The adults all seem to be shady in unique and murky ways.
Although there are many what I would call autobiographical moments, Ondaatje insists the book is totally fiction. But the main character’s name is also Michael. He is born in 1954. Ondaatje also made a similar trip at the same age. I don’t care what they call it, it is, at times, brilliantly done. A big part of the story is not so much coming of age as becoming aware. We watch as these boys learn how to manipulate the world they’ve been thrown into. We watch Ondaatje show us how the world works. The boys are thrown into a cauldron full of intricate adults. The world is limited, but vast. We watch so-called grown-ups do things in front of children that they wouldn’t normally do. It is the different environment they are all cooped up in, perhaps.
THE CAT’S TABLE will appeal to everyone. I think men could very well live vicariously through Ondaatje’s tale of adventure. Women will relate to the mystery and finess of the story. And the prose is there for everyone to read and admire.
This novel brought back memories of my teen years. Makes you think about your past. Did something adventurous in your youth help to shape who you are today?
Mystery, intrigue, thievery, unsavory characters, and scenes to keep close forever. That’s what you will find in Michael Ondaatje’s new novel.