The Cat’sTable was not a book I picked to read. I haven’t always had the best luck with Michael Ondaatje , The Cat’s Table is a coming of age story which is not my favorite kind of tale and the book it is short. Shortness has nothing to do with quality of course but it does have everything to do with what attracts me to a book. Oh yeah and it has an incredibly awful cover.
Why did I read The Cat’s Table? I had gotten sent a copy and set it aside to pass onto someone else. A few days later I was on my way out and needed a book to fit in a small bag…voila. The reading gods smiled on me that day.
The Cat’s Table is superb. It is a graceful and charming look back by a man at a unique experience he had decades ago as a boy. Ondaatje perfectly presents the wispy difference between what children know, what they are told and what they see. In the 1950’s young Michael is sent alone by boat from his home in what was then called Ceylon to begin a new life in England. He was told that his mother would be there waiting for him. The reasons for this change in his life are unknown to him.
On board the Oronsay Michael is assigned to the Cat’s Table. That is the table furthest away from the height of society on board at the Captain’s Table. At his table Michael meets two other boys his age also traveling without supervision and a group of adults odd ball enough to interest the boys at loose ends: a man who dismantles ships, a botanist, a tailor and a pianist who offers advice via jazz history and experienced enough to offer unique wisdom.
The boys have the advantage of being of little importance to any authority figure on the ship. They travel between first and third classes exploring every corner of the Oronsay, eating in the covered lifeboats, discovering the prisoner, the millionaire with hydrophobia, finding the mural of the naked woman, etc. They are temporary Huckleberry Finns in a Neverland that is a distinct moment in time for each of them.
The ultimate success of The Cat’s Table is twofold. First is Ondaatje’s ability to keep his adult narrator from over stepping into the past. He allows his boyhood self to discover and experience the moments of this voyage that will shape his life without the burden of constant adult hindsight.
The second victory is Ondaatje’s writing. Magical. If you are bored by perfect sentences, if lyrical phrasing is too everyday for you to be bothered with then by all means make the mistake I almost did and skip The Cat’s Table. If not read it and be transported.
P.S. The cover? Awful. It looks like a grainy photography from a true crime book. All it needs is an arrow superimposed somewhere on the hull of the ship with a caption that reads, "Body of Henry Robinson discovered here."