The Cat’s Table – by Michael Ondaatje – book review

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by Amelia Gordon

The Cat's TableMichael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table, the bestseller published in hardback last year, has now been released in paperback by Vintage Canada. The Cat's Table is a coming of age tale and, ultimately a mystery, set on a ship between Sri Lanka and England where three young boys are assigned to the lowest prestige dining table, called the cat's table, farthest from the Captain's coveted presence. The boys form a  small gang of adventurers on the ship and discover the secrets of their fellow diners, sometimes not revealed for many years after the trip. 

Ondaatje, one of Canada's foremost novelists, weaves his magic which consists of a warm, intimate attention to detail in the straightforward telling of a tale. As other great writers do, he has a gift for expressing the intangible. One of the boys dies in adulthood and the protagonist marries his sister, both being from immigrant Sri Lankan families. The marriage is not a success and Ondaatje perceptively explains the marriage " But her family had been broken and she and I were the link to mend it". 

The boys get into all sorts of trouble and by their antics cause significant pain to other passengers and crew but Ondaatje expresses beautifully the magic of being a preteen boy, basically unsupervised, in a small village, the ship. We also learn fascinating details about Sri Lanka, like the travelling rural circus that uses trees and the tarmac of roads as settings for its performances. 

It is tempting to view this book as autobiography, particularly since the protagonist is named Michael, emigrates to England in 1954, as Ondaatje did, and  he grows up to be a famous writer, but Ondaatje assures us that this is not the case. 

This book is an interesting read and Ondaatje is still compelling, but it does not match in power some of his earlier works: the English Patient or In the Skin of a Lion. One has only to read on-line reader reviews to see that some Ondaatje fans were disappointed. This reviewer swore never to read another novel by Ondaatje after the fiasco of Divisidero, in which he totally abandoned the story in mid novel and  started another. The arrogance of it, I thought. Only Ondaatje could get away with that. The Cat's Table restores faith in this important writer, whose less than best work is better than many authors writing today.