The Cat's Table Hardcover – 25 Aug 2011
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"Part memoir, complete masterpiece... Written with tenderness, wisdom and sharp emotional recall, this is an exuberant elegy to innocence." (Maggie Fergusson Intelligent Life)
"It's impossible to explain through any discussion of plot and character the hypnotic brilliance of The Cat's Table. The joy of boyhood and the darkness at its edges are conveyed in sense of extraordinary imagination... It is entirely... well, Ondaatje-esque." (Kamila Shamsie Guardian, Books of the Year)
"Grave and playful at the same time, beautifully written and moving." (The Times)
"One of the most admirable and enthralling literary novels of the year" (Harry Ritchie Daily Mail)
"Grace, humanity and despairing romance are central to the art of Michael Ondaatje. Although the narrative flutters and sighs and even drifts, this is such an attractive, melancholic and engaging work of connections and disconnections that it does not matter" (Irish Times)
From the acclaimed author of The English Patient and In the Skin of a Lion: a stunningly beautiful and moving new novel about a boy's life-changing journey from Ceylon to England in the 1950s.See all Product description
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"Cat's table" from the title of the novel is a place where passengers from the lower strata meet. Among them is Michael, two of his friends, Cassius and Ramadhin, Michael's cousin Emily, and dozens of other characters, about whom we learn from the narrator. To somebody Michael devotes several chapters, for someone a couple of pages. In England, the boy is waited by his mother, who left Sri Lanka four or five years ago, so the boy himself does not even remember what she looks like and when she left. Michael is taken care by one of his aunt (the so-called aunts and uncles are all adults on board, so this woman has no real kinship with Michael) in the first class, but they rarely see each other, so that the boy is traveling alone.
The three boys quickly become friends, get up with the crack of dawn, meet each other and spend all day in the overall company. The first surpsise on the ship for them is the fact that at night on the deck a criminal goes for a walk who goes to court in England.
Ondaatje's novel is a kaleidoscope of fates, and the most interesting is that time there is essentially condensed to three weeks, and the place at all to the size of the deck. The novel is written in clean English, so clean that you think that it is well rinsed in seawater. Although the book's title refers to a place where people of so-called second-class gather in the novel, there is no opposition between rich and poor, higher and lower classes. Those, who gather at the Cat's Table, have interesting fates, sometimes full of secrets, the rich yet seem to be the object of study rather than jealousy. The narrator almost never have to face aristocrats on the ship, so terminally ill Sir and Michael's aunt are the least deep characters in the novel, they are even more cartoonish.
The world of childhood is full of puzzles, and Ondaatje adds to the book as individual subplot real mystery, with a convict, murder, secret intrigues. This does not hurt the book: it does not appear that the author added the detective elements just to amuse the reader.
The narrator, in his memoirs about post-Oronsay period, says reader\viewer should not be considered novel's characters stupidier and worse than himself. These words can be assigned to Ondaatje: the book is written with such love for its characters that the reader can not help but love them.
However, it should be remembered that at the heart of the book the memoirs of eleven-year old boy, and therefore you should not trust everything he says. Certainly, there was something exaggerated, something the boy hid, but the cast of the memory of the three-week journey from one life to another one is delight.
The Cat's Table tells of the excitement and adventures of a young boy on a 3-week journey from Ceylon to England in the early 1950's interspersed with 'flash-forwards' to the boy's subsequent life when growing up in England.
It got off to a good start with an excellent account of the exciting journey to join the ship in Colombo. But from the point the boy boards the ship, the story begins to fall apart. The fact of the matter is that he is travelling tourist class, and therefore he will not be sitting for dinner in the same dining room as the Captain - not even at the 'Cat's table'! He then appears to be sharing a cabin with a crew member, again an absurd suggestion. The book is so constantly littered with things that could never possibly have happened that I can only treat the narrative as, at best, recounting a dream sequence.
If it is a dream sequence, rather than a novel, then perhaps I would analyse it differently. But even then I do not find Mr Ondaatje's prose sufficiently engaging to want to complete what, for me (but clearly not for many others) has been something of a 'slog'. I kept reading a chapter, then putting it aside for a day or two in the hope that subsequent chapters might capture my imagination more. Regrettably, they didn't. Perhaps it's all my fault, and I am not sufficient of a romantic to enjoy a book like this.
What Ondaatje, the real-life author wants us to see though, is the "Cat's Table" as a metaphor for all of life - well, all of his life at least. So the idea is that you are put at the worst table - the opposite of the Captain's - but in fact it turns out the be the best, the most exciting and privileged, with the most interesting people.
This is what he has done himself in coming from humble beginnings as an immigrant. He has made the most of the hand dealt him. So it turns out in this fictional story of a voyage, that the other Michael meets the most interesting people and gets introduced to magical gardens, mysterious acrobats, musicians inspired by Bechet and evil incarnate in Niemeyer, the prisoner.
So for the first half of this novel there is nothing to jar you out of the comfortable notion that this is pure autobiography, where nothing can go wrong, as we know all will turn out well for the narrator, who is the famous author we know. But gradually as the story focuses more on Niemeyer the bound and evil murderer, being transported on the ship - we do slip more into a mystery or thriller narrative.
At first the 3 young boys are fascinated by the prisoner and stay up at night to observe him in secret. But gradually we learn that every person on the Cat's Table is involved in the plot surrounding him and will play their part in a way that could only happen in fiction. So at the end everything is tied up in a way that would be extremely unlikely in real life. This makes for a satisfying read and keeps you drawn onwards, but does feel slightly contrived and clashes with the deep autobiographical feel of the early parts.
I won't give away more of the plot and its conclusion, but it's not exactly a whodunnit anyway - more a case of identifying who all the characters really are - as nobody is who they seem to be.
I enjoyed the whole experience and it is certainly pleasant reading, but it has more to tell us about growing up and seeing how life really works - the journey from innocence to experience. The novel is beautifully written with poetic and evocative descriptions - but although I may have hinted at a mystery/thriller element - the pace is stately and Ondaatje takes his time. Nothing is hurried and no detail left hanging. Everything is in its place and crafted to tell the story.
High quality and concise, but in conclusion maybe it would have been better as one thing or the other? It feels so autobiographical, you feel slightly cheated at the end; but still a wonderful read.