Ondaatje’s latest novel is, perhaps, his most “approachable” yet. It lacks the (somewhat) “foreign-ness” of Anil’s Ghost and the “intellectual-ness” of Divisadero. (It’s been too long since I read The English Patient to adequately come up with a comparison.) But most importantly, it has the same almost lyrically beautiful prose of other novels. It also reads faster. It is a page turner – not so much because the story is riveting, but because the prose flows so easily.
The Cat’s Table takes place, mostly, on a ship as an 11-year-old boy sails from Sri Lanka to England. (Approximately 100 pp into the novel, we learn the boy – who narrates – is named Michael, but an author’s note at the end tells us, explicitly, that this is a novel and not a memoir.) The novel itself, in some ways, is a series of vignettes, more than a narrative with a full arc.
On the ship, Michael meets two other boys his age, and they proceed to cause mischief of various kinds – stealing food from first class and hiding in life boats to eat; tossing deck chairs into the pool; creating a fort in the turbine room. They also cross paths with a diverse cast of characters at the table where they dine – The Cat’s Table: a botanist who is transporting a garden in the ship’s cargo hold; a pianist who plays with the ship band; a tailor who doesn’t speak; and a woman whose demeanor is able to arise the budding sexual fantasies of the boys.
The Cat’s Table is not a “coming of age” story in the traditional sense. In my opinion, it takes place over too short a period of time to be that; the bulk of the action takes place only over the three week journey from East to West. But the story on the ship does include brief “pauses” that take us into Michael’s future (the general present/recent past) and show the way in which the short period of time really did inform and shape his life. In some ways, these realizations for him seem to happen only as a result of writing about and reliving his time on the ship. Thus, we are sharing in his self-discovery; he is not telling us about it after the fact.
Some readers may feel frustrated as recollections and anecdotes jump back and forth, but this is what happens in life – there rarely a complete picture but only fragments that increase understanding and appreciation.
Portrayed here is an education indeed – growing sexual awareness, first-hand experience of the power of the elements (not to mention tragedy), realization that outward appearances do not tell the whole story. There was far more to the people encountered than at the time ever thought possible.
I found this finely crafted, multi-faceted novel a richly rewarding read – crammed with insight, humour and memorable images. It’s a yearning tribute with an almost fairytale-like aura to the memories of awe that pervade our dreams (and nightmares and fears), and the memories of sometimes unlikely affiliation and love and what we mistake as love that pervade and haunt our hearts, guide us or sometimes lead us astray.