Reader’s Advisory: The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

October 25, 2011

Booker Prize-winning author Michael Ondaatje’s reputation from his novels and poetry including Anil’s Ghost and The English Patient will garner a wide audience for his latest novel, The Cat’s Table without any extra effort on our part but we’re recommending it very highly anyway. It is a quietly wonderful, memorable book.

Our narrator is Michael, nicknamed Mynah, an 11 year-old boy traveling from Colombo, Ceylon–now Sri Lanka, to England sans parents on a passenger ship, the Oronsay in the early 1950s. His adventures on board are many and generally include 2 other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin, seated with him at the cat’s table; so named because it is as far from the Captain’s Table (the seat of power) as it can be.

Most adult interactions are unfamiliar to Michael who has been raised by servants. How delicious then to be the reader: older, wiser, but still able to recall the wonder at the mysteries that face 11-year-olds when, for the first time in their lives, they are surrounded by adults.  Natural curiosity, a taste for adventure and the ability to remain mostly invisible to the authorities, drive the three boys to seek out opportunities to observe, eavesdrop and make trouble. They breach the first-class swimming pool in the early morning; steal food which they eat while spying from the lifeboats; befriend characters honorable and not–each with a tale to tell.

Though finely detailed, events aren’t always accurately perceived by the naive Michael. It requires the reader to add his or her own layer of understanding to Ondaatje’s subtlety. Theft, sex, mystery and murder are all there; beautifully wrapped and presented.  This is a voyage not to be missed.