The Cat's Table

( 83 )

Overview

In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy in Colombo boards a ship bound for England. At mealtimes he is seated at the “cat’s table”—as far from the Captain’s Table as can be—with a ragtag group of “insignificant” adults and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. As the ship crosses the Indian Ocean, the boys tumble from one adventure to another, bursting all over the place like freed mercury. But there are other diversions as well: they are first exposed to the magical worlds of jazz, women, and literature by ...

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Overview

In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy in Colombo boards a ship bound for England. At mealtimes he is seated at the “cat’s table”—as far from the Captain’s Table as can be—with a ragtag group of “insignificant” adults and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. As the ship crosses the Indian Ocean, the boys tumble from one adventure to another, bursting all over the place like freed mercury. But there are other diversions as well: they are first exposed to the magical worlds of jazz, women, and literature by their eccentric fellow travelers, and together they spy on a shackled prisoner, his crime and fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever. By turns poignant and electrifying, The Cat’s Table is a spellbinding story about the magical, often forbidden, discoveries of childhood, and a lifelong journey that begins unexpectedly with a spectacular sea voyage.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Michael Ondaatje's richly charactered new novel begins at "the cat's table" of the Oronsay, where 11-year narrator Michael and his divorced mother share meals and the company of others as they journey from Sri Lanka to England. As the ship cuts its path on the high seas, young Michael and his youthful mealtime friends plot freewheeling adventures onboard. In quieter moments, he seeks the counsel and company of his warm-hearted older cousin Emily. Only later, when he jolts forward into adulthood do all the implications of this adolescent journey play out on his personality. Another artful, nuanced novel by the author of Anil's Ghost and the Booker Award-winning novel The English Patient.

From the Publisher
“Wondrous. . . . A new form of literary magic.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

“Mesmerizing. . . . As he did in his great novel, The English Patient, Ondaatje conjures images that pull strangers into the vivid rooms of his imagination, their detail illumined by his words.” —The New York Times Book Review

 “Lithe and quietly profound: a tale about the magic of adolescence and the passing strangers who help tip us into adulthood in ways we don’t become aware of until much later.” —The Washington Post
 
“Enthralling and poignant. . . . A captivating reminder that it can take decades to comprehend the past, let alone to make amends with it.” —The Seattle Times

“To capture truly any moment of life is an achievement of art. To find captured, in a single work, such disparate experiences—of youth and age, of action and reflection, of innocence and experience—is a rare pleasure. If each of Ondaatje’s novels is like a new flower, then this one smells particularly sweet.” —Claire Messud, The New York Review of Books

“For my money, Michael Ondaatje is the greatest living writer in the English language. . . . The wide-eyed love of the world and its wonders, the kindness he offers to his characters and readers, the elegant lyricism of his sentences, the joy of storytelling—all that is great in his other books is fully present in The Cat’s Table. . . . Mr. Ondaatje restores belief in the beauty and power of literature and, by extension, of humanity. In this dark, terrible world, The Cat’s Table has healing powers.” —Aleksandar Hemon, WSJ.com

“Ondaatje teaches us that the most marvelous sights are those most often overlooked. It's a lesson that turns this supple story, like the meals at the cat's table, into a feast.” —Los Angeles Times
 
“A lovely, shimmering book. . . . Ondaatje succeeds so well in capturing the anticipation and inquisitiveness of boyhood.” —Janet Maslin, The New York Times
 
“A great master may have written his finest book in a long career of fine books.” —Alan Heathcock, Salon
 
“Ondaatje brings all his literary trademarks to The Cat’s Table, from luminous prose to an amazing sense of economy. He makes every character, image and line resonate like a tuning fork. . . . Elegant and elegiac, The Cat’s Table is the author’s most intimate work.” —The Miami Herald
 
“Michael Ondaatje has written some of the most inimitable works in the English language; The Cat's Table yet again dignifies literature in every important way possible. This novel is a completely original orchestration of a coming-of-age story, memoir, maritime adventure as powerful as Conrad or Stevenson. The lyricism of the prose is astonishing.” —Howard Norman, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

“A gorgeous piece of writing. . . . Ondaatje has always been capable of conjuring up mesmerizing images to draw in a reader, but with The Cat’s Table he holds back just enough so the lyricism doesn’t overwhelm the story.” —The Christian Science Monitor
 
“A joy and a lark to read. . . . . The Cat’s Table expertly strums the cords of autobiography without overdoing it. As a result [the book] vibrates with the borrowed intimacy of real life.” —The Boston Globe
 
“Masterful. . . . Haunting and seductive.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“Elegant and beautiful . . . As in Anil’s Ghost, The Cat’s Table employs a deceptively light touch, hiding a carefully constructed and tender hymn to the enigma of journey.” —The Independent (London)
 
The Cat’s Table is just as skillfully wrought as Ondaatje’s magnum opus [The English Patient], but its picaresque childhood adventure gives it a special power and intimacy. . . . He is a master at creating characters, whom he chooses to present, memorably, as individuals. This choice is of a piece with the freshness and originality that are the hallmarks of The Cat’s Table.” —The Wall Street Journal
 
“Impressive. . . . Wonderful. . . . The beauty of Ondaatje’s writing is in its swift accuracy; it sings with the simple precision of the gaze. . . . Richly enjoyable, often very funny,and gleams like a really smart liner on a sunny day.” —Philip Hensher, The Daily Telegraph (London)
 
“Ondaajte couldn’t write a banal sentence if he tried. . . . . On its surface, The Cat’s Table may be a magically real reworking of a classic boy’s adventure tale. Deep down, it has the poignancy of a life’s summation.” —Pico Iyer, Time
 
“Mr. Ondaatje’s greatest talents lie in simply constructed, minimalist descriptions. His images are so meticulously created that the most obvious statements present themselves as sublime realizations. He doesn’t disappoint.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
 
“Ondaatje is justly recognized as a master of literary craft. . . . The novel tells of a journey from childhood to the adult world, as well as a passage from the homeland to another country, something of a Dantean experience.” —Annie Proulx, The Guardian (UK)
 
“Michael Ondaatje never writes the same book twice [though] what remains constant is precise, luminous language. . . . Ondaatje’s vision, though dark, is unfailingly generous and humane.” —The Oregonian
 
“Elegant, evocative. . . . Whatever its autobiographical roots, there’s a strong sense that this story—one with echoes of Conrad and Kipling—is a tale Michael Ondaatje someday was destined to tell. It’s a pleasure for us, his readers, to share in that telling.” —Bookreporter.com
 
“[Ondaatje’s] sentences have a sonorous capacity, a soft but urgent tone that coaxes rather than demands attention. Acrobatics are eschewed for a supple, precise flexibility. It's a gift shared by other English-language writers who spent significant time surrounded by diverse tongues: E.M. Forster, for example, and Graham Greene.” —The Denver Post

Liesl Schillinger
…mesmerizing…As he did in his great 1992 novel, The English Patient…Ondaatje conjures images that pull strangers into the vivid rooms of his imagination, their detail illumined by his words.
—The New York Times Book Review
Ron Charles
The feline quality of Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table will appeal to anyone who wants to curl up with a playful novel that can bite…lithe and quietly profound: a tale about the magic of adolescence and the passing strangers who help tip us into adulthood in ways we don't become aware of until much later.
—The Washington Post
Janet Maslin
…this lovely, shimmering book…is a tender meditation on how a child can be "smuggled away accidentally, with no knowledge of the act, into the future"…Mr. Ondaatje succeeds so well in capturing the anticipation and inquisitiveness of boyhood…
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In Ondaatje’s best novel since his Booker Prize–winning The English Patient, an 11-year-old boy sets off on a voyage from Ceylon to London, where his mother awaits. Though Ondaatje tells us firmly in the “Author’s Note” that the story is “pure invention,” the young boy is also called Michael, was also born in Ceylon, and also grows up to become a writer. This air of the meta adds a gorgeous, modern twist to the timeless story of boys having an awfully big adventure: young Michael meets two children of a similar age on the Oronsay, Cassius and Ramadhin, and together the threesome gets up to all kinds of mischief on the ship, with, and at the expense of, an eccentric set of passengers. But it is Michael’s older, beguiling cousin, Emily, also onboard, who allows him glimpses of the man he is to become. As always, Ondaatje’s prose is lyrical, but here it is tempered; the result is clean and full of grace, such as in this description of the children having lashed themselves to the deck to experience a particularly violent storm: “our heads were stretched back to try to see how deep the bow would go on its next descent. Our screams unheard, even to each other, even to ourselves, even if the next day our throats were raw from yelling into that hallway of the sea.” (Oct. 7)
Library Journal
"The journey was to be an innocent story within the small parameter of my youth," says the narrator of his voyage aboard the Oronsay, which carried him through the Indian Ocean to England and his divorced mother. But for 11-year-old Michael, things shift from the moment he is seated at "the cat's table," the least propitious spot in the dining room. Michael enjoys wild escapades with the two other boys at the table, quiet Ramadhin and hell-raiser Cassius, while befriending the mismatched adults at his table as well as his card-playing roommate, who tends the ship's kennels. Others on board include Michael's older cousin Emily, who takes up with the magnetic head of a performing troupe while protecting a deaf and frail-looking girl named Asuntha, and a heavily chained prisoner. The relationship among these four characters precipitates crisis, but we're not led to it systematically; instead, Booker Prize winner Ondaatje (Anil's Ghost) flashes forward to Michael as an adult, showing us how unwittingly we lose our childhood innocence and how that loss comes to affect us much, much later. VERDICT Writing in a less lyrically wrought style than usual, Ondaatje turns in a quietly enthralling work. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 4/4/11.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
The Barnes & Noble Review

"Who realizes how contented feral children are?"

In Michael Ondaatje's seventh novel, three boys run unsupervised through paradise, as attracted to evil as it is to them. Hannah Arendt's insight notwithstanding, the evil they encounter turns out to be exotic, not banal. However, because The Cat's Table recounts a 1954 voyage to London from the island formerly known as Ceylon, in an era when an English ship's upper echelons wouldn't have begun to acknowledge cruelties inflicted by racial and social class prejudice, it's hard for the narrator to see that evil exists in any form but that of the institutional: wealthy white passengers and the ship's officers who do their bidding. The title refers to Table 76, where eleven-year-old Michael is assigned to eat, along with two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin; a washed-up jazz piano player; a botanist transporting poisonous and medicinal plants; a retired ship dismantler; a silent tailor; and Miss Lasqueti, pale, peculiar, in possession of a laugh "that hinted it had rolled around...in mud."

The Cat's Table is the inverse of the Captain's Table, "the least privileged place." Cassius, who is instinctively democratic -- "I never saw him side with anyone in power" -- embraces the invisibility lack of status endows. No one notices the boys unless they're swimming in the First Class pool or have lashed themselves to the deck to witness a storm and require rescue. So they inhabit shadows and "see through the layers of authority." Secrets unveil themselves. Michael's cousin Emily trysts with a Singhalese magician. A shackled prisoner exercises by moonlight: "He is said to have killed a judge." Even Miss Lasqueti, skeptical about justice as it applies to Ceylon, warns Michael not to romanticize the prisoner: "He's probably not the sweetest chocolate in the box."

These details describe just the frame of the novel. The Cat's Table tells two stories. One is Michael's linear coming-of-age story, which reads, by itself, like a renovated version of "Billy Budd." Embedded within this narrative are scenes that report, in collage fashion, what's happened in London and Canada years after the end of the journey. Many novels contain both a framing story and embedded story, and they generally use separate genre conventions for each -- for instance, the framing story might be subtly realistic and the embedded story mythic, fabulous. The structure of The Cat's Table is unusual, though, in that that both the story about the childhood voyage as well as the story about the adults' later lives in London and Canada are mostly realistic, until the very last pages, when both stories suddenly produce old-fashioned climaxes and revelations.

This sense of realism is more pronounced because Ondaatje's methods blur the line between fiction and memoir. The novel's narrator shares a name with the author, who was raised in Ceylon, and the adult Michael, like the author, lives in Canada and publishes books. Moreover, the prologue begins in the novelistic third person ("[H]e climbed aboard the first and only ship of his life..." ) but abandons this for the more autobiographical first person ("I wonder who he was, this boy...this green grasshopper") and finally narrates in first person from such a temporal distance that the novel reads like one of those memoirs written by a retired British peer ("It is only now, years later, having been prompted by my children to describe this voyage...").

And most of the novel mimics life's lack of plot, too. Character sketches seem to accrue in a merely serial way. In life, we travel expecting to meet fellow passengers and part unchanged, and yet we read novels expecting the protagonist to meet fellow passengers and find his future altered by them. The bulk of The Cat's Table avoids this familiar arc. Pending its long-delayed finale, it records charming, ostensibly random scraps of eavesdropping: "I asked him, 'How can it be an aphrodisiac and a laxative?' And he said, 'Well, it's all in the timing.' " Like a classic modernist novel, then, most of The Cat's Table works at resembling the disorderliness of experience, life's accidents and caprices, shunning plot's patterns and purpose. Slow and stately, it seems to sail to a stop, not to fruition. Then the final pages kick in, employing plot contrivances at breakneck speed: thematic accords and previously concealed character interidentities that rival those found in Dickens, and a (melo)dramatic cloak-and-dagger climax achieved by sleight of hand, as well as a potent concoction that induces hypnotized obedience followed by amnesia -- effects as conveniently sequenced as those produced by an aphrodisiac that later works as a laxative.

Old-fashioned plot machinations not only produce a tidy, yet manic climax for the childhood story but for the contemporary story, too, where they strain credulity less elegantly. Ayurvedic medicine can't justify the startling discoveries that take place in London and Canada, or the arrival of an especially implausible letter from a long-lost shipboard acquaintance, a letter so detailed it reads like an excerpt from a Victorian novel. In the final scenes, Michael and Emily hash out the what-must- have-happened like a detective and sidekick, or perhaps a therapist and patient exploring recovered memories.

Quibbles aside, The Cat's Table is a wildly ambitious novel that bravely depicts not just the prosaic, institutionalized version of evil- colonial privilege-but also the moral blindness that sometimes came in its wake, lapses of judgment originating in sympathetic identification with fellow insignificants, the least privileged and most maligned. In fairy tales, captors are evil and victims are virtuous. In life, however, victims have often been schooled in terror, so they're sometimes amoral, willing to sacrifice innocents. Or perhaps any cross-section of humanity includes its portion of sadists. Ondaatje give us a portrait of prejudice -- and a portrait of fatally careless reactions to prejudice, too. He also gives us two sets of storytelling conventions: the most modern and least enchanted storytelling conventions, and the most ancient and magical. If the seam between these modes of storytelling is ragged, even glaringly conspicuous, the seam between a mid-twentieth-century childhood lived in the fragrant garden of Boralesgamuwa and an adult life lived afterward in England and Canada is glaringly conspicuous, as well, a seam closing over a gap between cultures so incompatible that a ship's passage across it isn't a journey leading toward adventure but diminishment. The adult Michael reflects: "Grandeur had not been added to my life...but taken away."

Debra Monroe, winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award, is the author of four books of fiction and one memoir, On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain. Reviewer: Debra Monroe

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307744418
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/12/2012
  • Series: Vintage International Series
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 119,563
  • Product dimensions: 5.32 (w) x 7.82 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje is the author of five previous novels, a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and several books of poetry. The English Patient won the Booker Prize; Anil’s Ghost won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Giller Prize, and the Prix Médicis. Born in Sri Lanka, Michael Ondaatje now lives in Toronto.

www.michaelondaatje.com

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Read an Excerpt

THE CAT’S TABLE by Michael Ondaatje
 
He wasn’t talking. He was looking from the window of the car all the way. Two adults in the front seat spoke quietly under their breath. He could have listened if he wanted to, but he didn’t. For a while, at the section of the road where the river sometimes flooded, he could hear the spray of water at the wheels. They entered the Fort and the car slipped silently past the post office building and the clock tower. At this hour of the night there was barely any traffic in Colombo. They drove out along Reclamation Road, passed St. Anthony’s Church, and after that he saw the last of the food stalls, each lit with a single bulb. Then they entered a vast open space that was the harbour, with only a string of lights in the distance along the pier. He got out and stood by the warmth of the car.

He could hear the stray dogs that lived on the quays barking out of the darkness. Nearly everything around him was invisible, save for what could be seen under the spray of a few sulphur lanterns—watersiders pulling a procession of baggage wagons, some families huddled together. They were all beginning to walk towards the ship.

He was eleven years old that night when, green as he could be about the world, he climbed aboard the first and only ship of his life. It felt as if a city had been added to the coast, better lit than any town or village. He went up the gangplank, watching only the path of his feet—nothing ahead of him existed—and continued till he faced the dark harbour and sea. There were outlines of other ships farther out, beginning to turn on lights. He stood alone, smelling everything, then came back through the noise and the crowd to the side that faced land. A yellow glow over the city. Already it felt there was a wall between him and what took place there. Stewards began handing out food and cor- dials. He ate several sandwiches, and after that he made his way down to his cabin, undressed, and slipped into the narrow bunk. He’d never slept under a blanket before, save once in Nuwara Eliya. He was wide awake. The cabin was below the level of the waves, so there was no porthole. He found a switch beside the bed and when he pressed it his head and pillow were suddenly lit by a cone of light.

He did not go back up on deck for a last look, or to wave at his relatives who had brought him to the harbour. He could hear singing and imagined the slow and then eager parting of families taking place in the thrilling night air. I do not know, even now, why he chose this solitude. Had whoever brought him onto the Oronsay already left? In films people tear themselves away from one another weeping, and the ship separates from land while the departed hold on to those disappearing faces until all distinction is lost.
I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was. Perhaps a sense of self is not even there in his nervous stillness in the narrow bunk, in this green grasshopper or little cricket, as if he has been smuggled away accidentally, with no knowledge of the act, into the future.
 
He woke up, hearing passengers running along the corridor. So he got back into his clothes and left the cabin. Something was happening. Drunken yells filled the night, shouted down by officials. In the middle of B Deck, sailors were attempting to grab hold of the harbour pilot. Having guided the ship meticulously out of the harbour (there were many routes to be avoided because of submerged wrecks and an earlier breakwater), he had gone on to have too many drinks to celebrate his achievement. Now, apparently, he simply did not wish to leave. Not just yet. Perhaps another hour or two with the ship. But the Oronsay was eager to depart on the stroke of midnight and the pilot’s tug waited at the waterline. The crew had been struggling to force him down the rope ladder, however as there was a danger of his falling to his death, they were now capturing him fishlike in a net, and in this way they lowered him down safely. It seemed to be in no way an embarrassment to the man, but the episode clearly was to the officials of the Orient Line who were on the bridge, furious in their white uniforms. The passengers cheered as the tug broke away. Then there was the sound of the two-stroke and the pilot’s weary singing as the tug disappeared into the night.
 
What had there been before such a ship in my life? A dugout canoe on a river journey? A launch in Trincomalee harbour? There were always fishing boats on our horizon. But I could never have imagined the grandeur of this castle that was to cross the sea. The longest journeys I had made were car rides to Nuwara Eliya and Horton Plains, or the train to Jaffna, which we boarded at seven a.m. and disembarked from in the late afternoon. We made that journey with our egg sandwiches, some thalagulies, a pack of cards, and a small Boy’s Own adventure.

But now it had been arranged I would be travelling to England by ship, and that I would be making the journey alone. No mention was made that this might be an unusual experience or that it could be exciting or dangerous, so I did not approach it with any joy or fear. I was not forewarned that the ship would have seven levels, hold more than six hundred people including a captain, nine cooks, engineers, a veterinarian, and that it would contain a small jail and chlorinated pools that would actually sail with us over two oceans. The departure date was marked casually on the calendar by my aunt, who had notified the school that I would be leaving at the end of the term. The fact of my being at sea for twenty-one days was spoken of as having not much significance, so I was surprised my relatives were even bothering to accompany me to the harbour. I had assumed I would be taking a bus by myself and then change onto another at Borella Junction.

There had been just one attempt to introduce me to the situation of the journey. A lady named Flavia Prins, whose husband knew my uncle, turned out to be making the same journey and was invited to tea one afternoon to meet with me. She would be travelling in First Class but promised to keep an eye on me. I shook her hand carefully, as it was covered with rings and bangles, and she then turned away to continue the conversation I had interrupted. I spent most of the hour listening to a few uncles and counting how many of the trimmed sandwiches they ate.

On my last day, I found an empty school examination booklet, a pencil, a pencil sharpener, a traced map of the world, and put them into my small suitcase. I went outside and said good-bye to the generator, and dug up the pieces of the radio I had once taken apart and, being unable to put them back together, had buried under the lawn. I said good-bye to Narayan, and good-bye to Gunepala.

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 not 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.
 
I heard a note being slipped under my door. It assigned me to Table 76 for all my meals. The other bunk had not been slept in. I dressed and went out. I was not used to stairs and climbed them warily.

In the dining room there were nine people at Table 76, and that included two other boys roughly my age.

“We seem to be at the cat’s table,” the woman called Miss Lasqueti said. “We’re in the least privileged place.”

It was clear we were located far from the Captain’s Table, which was at the opposite end of the dining room. One of the two boys at our table was named Ramadhin, and the other was called Cassius. The first was quiet, the other looked scornful, and we ignored one another, although I recognized Cassius. I had gone to the same school, where, even though he was a year older than I was, I knew much about him. He had been notorious and was even expelled for a term. I was sure it was going to take a long time before we spoke. But what was good about our table was that there seemed to be several interesting adults. We had a botanist, and a tailor who owned a shop up in Kandy. Most exciting of all, we had a pianist who cheerfully claimed to have “hit the skids.”

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Reading Group Guide

1. The epigraph is taken from the short story “Youth” by Joseph Conrad: “And this is how I see the East.... I see it always from a small boat—not a light, not a stir, not a sound. We conversed in low whispers, as if afraid to wake up the land.... It is all in that moment when I opened my young eyes on it. I came upon it from a tussle with the sea.” How does this set up the major themes of The Cat’s Table?

2. How is the voyage itself a metaphor for childhood?

3. Why do you think the opening passages of the book are told in third person?

4. We are 133 pages into the novel before Ondaatje gives us an idea of what year it is. How does he use time—or the sense of timelessness—to propel the story?

5. The anonymity of ocean travel and the sense that board ship we know only what others want us to know about them come into play at several points in the novel. What is Ondaatje saying about identity?

6. For several characters—the three boys and Emily among them—the journey represents a loss of innocence. For whom does it have the greatest impact?

7. Discuss the importance of some of the seemingly minor characters at the table: Mr. Mazappa, Mr. Fonseka, Mr. Nevil. What do they contribute to the story?

8. “What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power,” the narrator realizes (page 75). “Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.” How does this prove true over the course of the novel?

9. How do the narrator’s experiences breaking and entering with the Baron change his way of looking at the world?

10. Discuss the three boys’ experience during the typhoon. How does it affect their friendship and their attitude toward authority figures?

11. How does the death of Sir Hector factor into the larger story?

12. On page 155, the narrator refers to Ramadhin as “the saint of our clandestine family.” What does he mean?

13. When describing the collapse of his marriage, the narrator says, “Massi said that sometimes, when things overwhelmed me, there was a trick or a habit I had: I turned myself into something that did not belong anywhere. I trusted nothing I was told, not even what I witnessed” (page 203). What made him behave this way? How did it affect his marriage?

14. On page 208, the narrator tells us about a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne in which “he spoke of how viewers of his films should not assume they understood everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they; we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves.” Why did Ondaatje give us this warning, so far into the novel? What is he telling us?

15. What was your reaction to the revelations about Miss Lasqueti?

16. How do you think her letter to Emily might have changed the events on board the Oronsay? Why didn’t she send it?

17. Miss Laqueti signs off her letter,  “‘Despair young and never look back,’ an Irishman said. And this is what I did” (page 231). What does she mean?

18. Discuss Emily’s relationship with Asuntha. Did she, as the narrator suggests on page 251, see herself in the deaf girl?

19. When Emily says to the narrator, “I don’t think you can love me into safety,” (page 250), to what is she referring? What is the danger, decades after the voyage?

20. The narrator wishes to protect Emily, Cassius has Asuntha, and Ramadhin has Heather Cave. “What happened that the three of us had a desire to protect others seemingly less secure than ourselves?” he asks on page 262. How would you answer that question?

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 83 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 24, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Intriguing Literature - A Very Good Read

    "The Cat's Table" by Michael Ondaatje is an intriguing novel. Like fish to bait, I was drawn to Ondaatje's series of innocuous vignettes that fleshed out a plot and bit by bit teased out the characters in bite-sized chunks.

    This deeply affecting and multilayered story orbits around three boys cruising from Sri Lanka to England in the early 1950s. The primary character, Michael (although we only find out his name 50 or so pages in), is traveling on his own to meet his Mother. He and two other boys, Cassius and Ramidhan, have the run of the ship as the reader is taken on a tour of their mostly (but not exclusively) insignificant trouble making and mischief. In Michael's own words, "...the fact that I was on my own...was itself an adventure. I had no family responsibilities. I could go anywhere, do anything. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden."

    One cannot help but read the coming-of-age theme built around the 11-year old Michael. The theme might seem cliched, but Ondjaatje's deft mastery of language and his manipulation of plot is what distinguishes this as literature rather than mere fiction.

    The trip was an opportunity to observe and orbit around an adult world while still playing the part of a child. He says, "We were learning about adults simply by being in their midst. We felt patterns emerging..." And if to underline the cruise's metaphorical transportation from Michaels' childhood into his adulthood, he finds himself in front of a mirror and narrates, "It was the image of my youth that I would hold on to for years--someone startled, half formed, who had not become anyone or anything yet."

    We are introduced to a smattering of other characters throughout the story: Michael's cousin Emily, Ramadhin's sister Massi, and the very enigmatic man in chains - a prisoner who's allowed on deck for only a short while each night. It's the well-paced and dramatic unraveling of the prisoner's story that creates one of the signature "Ah-Ha!" moments in the novel. Much of the last third of the book occurs in Michael's present where Ondaatje focuses on his growth, the transformation of his relationships with those from the ship, and his synthesis of his past and present. And like real life, not all conclusions are neatly packaged.


    Throughout the novel, there are hints at where the story is leading. Some of the hints abruptly foreshadow plot lines. Some hints aren't quite recognizable until the initial plot thread becomes knotted with a related thread farther along in the book.

    Through most of the interactions on the ship, Ondaatje writes very short chapters creating almost movie-like quick-cuts from scene to scene. I realized that this is how memories work. Usually, one doesn't remember an entire day, but rather moments that have burned into one's memory through the intensity of the experience. I believe that Ondaatje wrote these scenes very purposefully. First, to create very succinct and clear threads that, over time, flesh out Michael's experiences. Second, these flash memories become part of the story itself. They create a pace and expectation on behalf of the reader that propels his experience with the characters.

    Michael reflects on the stories of his life, which are in essence, a unification of memories. He narrates, "There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it. You

    13 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 10, 2011

    A beautifully told tale through the eye's of a young boy

    I loved the writing style of this book. Like "The English Patient", there are mysteries that aren't always solved, and a plot that certainly isn't predictable. The characters are amazingly drawn, and I feel like I'll be thinking about this book for years to come. Derfinitely worth reading.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 30, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Award winning author Michael Ondaatje provides a strong coming of age thriller that contains a metaphysical undercurrent for those who know the background of the writer

    Eleven year old Michael is leaving his home in Ceylon for the first time to join his divorced mother living in England. Michael is traveling alone though a first class passenger promised his uncles and aunts to keep an eye on him. The lad is taken aback when he sees the multistoried castle he will sail on lying majestically large in Colombo Harbor. His bunk on the Oronsay is under the waves so he has no porthole.

    He is assigned Table 76 for his meals. There are nine people at 76 including two boys (extroverted Cassius who he knows from school and pensive Ramadhin) his age. Another table 76 occupant Miss Laqueri explains they eat at the Cat's Table, which is to keep the dregs the furthest from the exclusive Captain's Table. The lads run amuck getting into one stormy escapade after another while traveling the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea while being fascinated by the mystery of the chained prisoner. Meanwhile Michael is attracted to his older vivacious cousin Emily as she is kind to him, places deaf Asuntha under her protective wing and gallivants with a performer.

    Award winning author Michael Ondaatje provides a strong coming of age thriller that contains a metaphysical undercurrent for those who know the background of the writer. Michael's journey is filled with youthful adventures but also metaphorically symbolizes the journey of life as the adult is the child without the innocence. The Cat's Table is an excellent character driven drama, which, unlike Paradise Lost can become Paradise Regained, though innocence lost is gone forever.

    Harriet Klausner

    5 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 10, 2011

    Very good ! I would definately recommend this book.

    This was a very interesting book. I learned a lot about travel by ship in these olden times. And I enjoyed the way the past and the more recent times are drawn together.

    3 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 10, 2013

    Surprising...

    Not a fan of Ondaatje in general. But I found this book to be compulsively readable and very original. Great cast of eclectic and likeable characters. Interesting twists and a highly satisfying ending. Will recommend to friends.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 16, 2013

    A finely crafted tale of an 11-year old boy's 21 day ship crossing from Ceylon to England.

    This book tells of the people at the "Cat's Table"---those of the least interest and importance to the ship's Captain and therefore farthest away from the Captain's table---and their exploits for the 21 day cruise. Each chapter is a little vignette on its own. Some of it is what occurs on the ship, and then the story reverts to the characters when they are older. The story jumps back and forth thru time and even becomes a little con-fusing to the reader. As you might predict, however, all the parts come to the fore toward the end of the book, and then the reader can put all this and that together and realize how finely crafted the book is written.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2013

    Good Short Fiction

    I enjoyed the character development. In the first few chapters I wondered where the story was headed, but after 60 or so pages the story took on strong story lines being unveiled in every new chapter. There are few un answered sub plots, but I surmise the author writes that way on purpose. Up to the reader to carry on.
    Interesting information about a 21 day boat trip in another century and filled with images of a different time.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2013

    Very enjoyable read

    This was a great story. I felt like I was there on the ship with the characters. Great "curl-up" book for a rainy day read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 24, 2012

    Dawn to geckostar

    Geckostar! I....w.w.was... in.....y.y.your... clan....u..ntil.. i..i.
    I..f.f.found...m.m.m.y...p...o.wer.. the dragon stammered. I could turn into a dragon th.th..th.en i never came back. Anyway here is my gift. I will give you the ancient pendant of dreams. It will help you build a clan so great you never thought it was possible. She gives you a flikering orb on a chain of dimonds and obsidian and glides silently away.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2012

    Not compelling

    My husband enjoyed the book and recommended it. But I thought it lacked energy and plot. I forced myself to get through it but didn't like fhe abrupt ending. I say don.t bother.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 1, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Good story.

    The world of a voyage from Ceylon (in the 1950's not yet Sri Lanka) to London as seen through the eyes of an 11 year old traveling to meet his estranged mother. His adventures and insights with his fellow pre-teens and the others who populate the ship can be quite amusing and profound for his adolescent sensibilities. Though not a fan of overly descriptive narrative, I felt that at times, the writing was a bit too sparse. I did appreciate Ondaatje's ability to capture the mind of an 11 year old.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 3, 2014

    Yamahan

    Waits

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  • Posted March 15, 2014

    I was intrigued by the title of this book plus I quite enjoyed a

    I was intrigued by the title of this book plus I quite enjoyed another one of Ondaatje's books (Running in the Family) so I recently choose The Cat's Table to read. Early on, the author explains that the "cat's table" on a ship is the table furthest from the captain's table or in other words the table of the least privileged on the ship. Later the main character observes that often in life we learn the most from those seated at whatever cat's tables we may be seated.

    The story is of three unsophisticated, adolescent Sri Lankan boys who are put on a boat, the Oronsay, bound for England. To the boys, the Oronsay seemed to exude "the grandeur of a castle." They have experienced very little of the adult world before this trip and are left to fend for themselves with the exception of an occasional meeting of an "auntie" or cousin. The three soon bond and vow to do one forbidden activity a day which includes spying on various adult conversations. By the end of the trip they have traveled from one culture to another and have journeyed further down the path of becoming adults.

    I was glad the author jumped ahead to the current lives of the three boys about halfway through the book. Ondaatje let the reader begin to discover the fate of the three before revisiting the remainder of the boat journey 20 years earlier.

    The genre is not mystery but the unusual circumstances of a shackled, escorted prisoner onboard leads the boys to try their hand at detective work and the reader is left in suspense for much of the novel.

    This book leaves me eager to read more of Ondaatje's works.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 4, 2013

    Not great

    I thought it was rather rambling and not very interesting. Wouldnt recommend it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 22, 2013

    A Childhood Odyessy

    Captures the crucible of childhood's creation of the adult.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2013

    StaticWind

    "Haave i missed something?"

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2013

    Silverstar

    Tommrow at full moon first result between eight trity and nine eastern time

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 15, 2013

    Lichentail

    Hello.

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2013

    Slave

    At result seven.

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2013

    Votes.... the most important of them all

    1) Dovewing 2) Tigerstar or Hawkfrost 3) Purdy 4) Leaf (From Firestars Quest) 5) Brook Where Small Fish Swim 6) Lionblaze

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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