I really loved this wonderful novel! I admit I had a hard time getting into it, but once I did, I found myself so emotionally taken. I started this on a trip, which seemed fitting as the story is of a journey on the steam liner Oronsay. But I had trouble reading The Cat’s Table in short bursts. This is a book to which you must give yourself over—to read leisurely and to savor. Michael Ondaatje does not write with a melodramatic style, but, oh, did I ache for these characters.
They are such a fascinating group, collected at the ‘Cat’s Table’—the one farthest from the Captain’s table, and thus the least prestigious. The story follows an eleven-year-old boy (interestingly enough named Michael like the author who took a similar trip in his youth). Just as Ondaatje did, the young narrator is leaving Colombo, Sri Lanka to meet his mother in England. Michael, and his two young friends, scramble through the turbine room, play with the dogs in the kennel, discover a secret garden in the hold, and have adventures on the ship’s dark, mysterious decks late at night. These scenes are imbued with a childlike sense of wonder. I loved when the ship goes through the Suez Canal and how that reverberates through the story. The trek is a reverse Passage to India, with the Oronsay crossing back from Asia. Indeed, the novel evokes many of the same themes that Walt Whitman did, including East v. West, progress, and “the Past! the Past!”
We also get a glimpse at the magic of Sri Lanka, with its “chorus of insects … gecko talk. And … rope burning on the street that was always one of the first palpable smells of the day.” Though Ondaatje is not a magical realist, he certainly evokes that sense of finding magic in the ordinary, the quotidian.
As the trip progresses, we get to know the characters not only from their interactions on the Oronsay, which is a bit like a small town, but also through flash-forwards and flashbacks. (It reminded me of LOST in the way a certain scene accrues different meanings and emotions when seen via another character or the veil of time).
These shifting perspectives are not confusing, however, as Ondaatje keeps the reader grounded in the narrative. We feel the ramifications of small acts, a bit in the vein of Ian McEwan. In a flash-forward, an adult Michael reacts to seeing his wife nudge her shoulder strap as she dances with another man. “I knew there was some grace between them that we ourselves did not have anymore.”
In the end, this is a book about moments and the people who come in and out of one’s life. As Ondaatje puts it: “There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You find in this way the path of your life.”