Saturday, December 21, 2013
The Cat's Table
Reviewed by OFW editor:
Published: March 01, 2014
From the cover:
In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy boards a huge liner bound for England. At mealtimes, he is placed at the lowly "Cat's Table" with an eccentric and unforgettable group of grownups and two other boys. As the ship makes its way across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, the boys find themselves immersed in the worlds and stories of the adults around them. At night they spy on a shackled prisoner -- his crime and fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever.
Looking back from deep within adulthood, and gradually moving back and forth from the decks and holds of the ship to the years that follow the narrator unfolds a spellbinding and layered tale about the magical, often forbidden discoveries of childhood and the burdens of earned understanding, about a life-long journey that began unexpectedly with a sea voyage.
“The Cat's Table” is a tale about a young boy’s three week journey across the ocean from his home in Sri Lanka to England. The boy travels alone, and the “Cat’s Table” is the dinner table he’s assigned to along with a few strange adults and two other boys (the troublemaking Cassius and quiet Ramadhin) with whom he becomes fast friends. This table is the complete opposite of the captain’s table, reserved for the “lowliest” of passengers. In the voice of this boy, Mynah, (who we later learn is “young Michael”) we go along on his adventures while on board the ship.
But don’t think this is a typical boyhood journey type of story. It is not. Ondaatje touches on some sensitive and often too harshly depicted realities such as social status, class division, and the luxury of being one of the overlooked. Yes, I said luxury. Being seen as “important” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
As the story progresses, the reader is silently and almost unnoticeably joined by an adult "Michael,” who looks over the boy’s shoulder for a time, coloring the story with his own thoughts and memories.
For the first half of the novel, the reader is carried away by Ondaatje’s exquisitely clean prose as he describes the boys’ adventures on the ship. Each adventure is told as a vignette, not a continuous narrative, but this doesn’t draw the reader from the story. In fact, it reminded me of how children share stories in real life, jumping back and forth, from the most exciting, to the mundane, back to the exciting, never leaving out even the most unimportant of details. These little “snapshots” show not only the ship’s atmosphere, but also the personalities of each of its eccentric characters as they go about their activities, largely unaware of young Michael’s observation of them. In the second half, adult Michael takes over, dropping hints as to how earlier vignettes may be connected. But then the reader is startled out of this complacent role of listener, as adult Michael forces us to question everything we’ve just been told, questioning the certainty of his memory. Then you recall how he confesses to being an accomplished liar, and you begin to wonder what is real and what is fiction.
But eventually, the gaps in each character’s past and future are revealed, and we are closer to understanding the adult Michael, and why he is telling the story. There are several lines that stay with the reader. For example, his description of a childhood feeling: “a desire that is a mixture of thrill and vertigo,” that he claims to finally understand as an adult. Later his cousin Emily, after they are grown and the journey is all but forgotten, speaks one of the most memorable lines in the story: "We all became adults before we were adults." Don't we all know that feeling?
Ondaatje’s writing has this quality, this music that I can’t explain, that has a way of creeping inside your head and blending with that inner voice only you can hear. The language, the tone, the imagery and the gentle manner in which he treats the subject of “The Cat’s Table” makes you feel as though you were allowed to travel with the author on a very intimate journey, and in return he’s given you the best of Ondaatje. You get his beautiful, skillful prose, absurd humor here and there, and killer dialogue that combine to make you laugh and gasp out loud as you read.
Prior to reading “The Cat’s Table” I’d heard much debate over whether or not this was a memoir of the author’s childhood crossing and eventual journey to Canada. However, at a recent reading Ondaatje insisted the work is pure fiction, although he conceded it was definitely colored with his own experience as a boy on board a ship. There are some parallels to Ondaatje’s life that even a new fan of his work might recognize. For example the fictional Michael’s childhood in Sri Lanka and a journey by ship to England in the fifties, mirrors Ondaatje’s real life. There are other parallels as well, but how many of us do the same in our own writing? My life colors everything I write, and yet everything I write is fiction. The only reason those parallels aren’t seen is because our lives aren’t as well known. In the Author's Note, Ondaatje is vague about this, but does it really matter whether it is memoir or fiction? The journey is a hypnotizing ride, and one many writers would benefit from experiencing.
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