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Sunday, October 02, 2011

Book Review: The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

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The English Patient was one of my favourite novels by Ondaatje. It helped that I studied it in English Lit because the movie adaption is really only one part of the many stories interwoven in that tale. It’s a masterpiece. But I suspect that it’s one of those books that people bought but never read. In the case of The Cat’s Table, we have a novel that is a much more accessible to read and definitely worth picking up.

In the early 1950s, 11-year-old Mynah (or Michael) boards a ship in Colombo bound for England. The Cat’s Table is his adventure on board, the characters who he meets, and later his adult understanding of that childhood time. Ondaatje has crafted a wonderful tale.

As I got into the car, it was explained to me that after I’d crossed the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea, and gone through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, I would arrive one morning on a small pier in England and my mother would meet me there. It was to the magic or the scale of the journey that was of concern to me, but that detail of how my mother could know when exactly I would arrive in that other country.

And if she would be there.

What he doesn’t know is that he’ll befriend the heart-troubled Ramadhin or the exuberant Cassius. Nor does he know upon boarding about the shackled prisoner, the deaf girl or the circus.

It was not even eight o’clock when we crossed the border from First Class back to Tourist Class. We pretended to stagger with the roll of the ship. I had by now come to love the slow waltz of our vessel from side to side. And the fact that I was on my own, save for the distant Flavia Prins and Emily, was itself an adventure. I had no family responsibilities. I could go anywhere, do anything. And Ramadhin, Cassius, and I had already established one rule. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden. The day had barely begun, and we still had hours ahead of us to perform this task.

Whether it’s sneaking down to the boiler rooms, slipping into the life rafts, nabbing treats, or brazenly standing out in a storm, these three boys wreck havoc in the way only boys can. But this story is not just about discovering what they can get into, it’s about discovering who they are and what they mean to each other.

In many ways, it’s a story we all know. It’s one of going to camp for the summer and making friends, meeting people on a trip with whom you promise to stay in touch, or missing classmates who’ve come and gone. It’s about friendships made in a confined space or time. It’s about growing up and moving from childhood to adulthood. That’s what I mean by accessible. We share Mynah’s memories, even if they are not of the exact same space and time.

Watch for Michael Ondaatje at the Writers Festivals happening this fall. He’s worth seeing and the book is worth reading.

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje
Published by M&S
Available in hardcover, unabridged audio CD, unabridged audiobook download and eBook.
Canadian author

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