Summary and book reviews of The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

The Cat's Table

A Novel

By Michael Ondaatje

The Cat's Table
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2011,
    288 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2012,
    288 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Beverly Melven

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About this Book

Book Summary

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 makes its way across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, the boys tumble from one adventure to another, bursting all over the place like freed mercury. But there are other diversions as well: one man talks with them about jazz and women, another opens the door to the world of literature. The narrator's elusive, beautiful cousin Emily becomes his confidante, allowing him to see himself "with a distant eye" for the first time, and to feel the first stirring of desire. Another Cat's Table denizen, the shadowy Miss Lasqueti, is perhaps more than what she seems. And very late every night, the boys spy on a shackled prisoner, his crime and his fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever.

As the narrative moves between the decks and holds of the ship and the boy's adult years, it tells a spellbinding story - by turns poignant and electrifying - about the magical, often forbidden, discoveries of childhood and a lifelong journey that begins unexpectedly with a spectacular sea voyage.

The Cat's Cable

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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  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...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

As always, Ondaatje's characters have a depth and resonance that is tough to beat. His prose, at its best, is lyrical - and, at its worst, is still better than most. The book is written like a memoir, and works well as the story of someone who is hoping to find that long-lost friend, or maybe just the child he used to be. Though the book is written for adults, I think the YA crowd would enjoy it as well.   (Reviewed by Beverly Melven).

Full Review Members Only (861 words).

Media Reviews
Quill and Quire

A story so enveloping and beautifully rendered, one is reluctant to disembark at the end of the journey…. Though the ocean journey in The Cat's Table lasts a mere 21 days, it encapsulates the fullness of a lifetime.

Financial Times (UK)

No one who has read a novel or poem by Ondaatje can easily forget its powerful imagery…. His wondrous prose feels more alive to the world than ever before.

The Economist

In a novel superbly poised between the magic of innocence and the melancholy of experience, Mr. Ondaatje probes what it means to have a cautious heart.

The Telegraph (UK)

Three children mapping the hidden regions of a floating world - a world of displaced people, of travelers between lands…. The Cat's Table deserves to be recognized for the beauty and poetry of its writing: pages that lull you with their carefully constructed rhythm, sailing you effortlessly from chapter to chapter and leaving you bereft when forced to disembark at the novel's end.

The Independent on Sunday (UK)

An eloquent, elegiac tribute to the game of youth and how it shapes what follows… Sheer brilliance of characterization on show. The bit players on board The Oronsay are almost Dickensian in their eccentricity and lovability… Ondaatje has created a beautiful and poetic study here of what it means to have your very existence metaphorically, as well as literally, at sea.

The Guardian

[Ondaatje] is justly recognised as a master of literary craft… As we read into The Cat's Table the story becomes more complex, more deadly, with an increasing sense of lives twisted awry, of misplaced devotion… All that was seen and experienced, is carried ashore by the passengers in memories, damaged psyches, degrees of loss, evanescent joy and reordered lives.

Evening Standard (UK)

The Cat's Table is an exquisite example of the richness that can flourish in the gaps between fact and fiction… It is an adventure story, it is a meditation on power, memory, art, childhood, love and loss. It displays a technique so formidable as to seem almost playful. It is one of those rare books that one could reread an infinite number of times, and always find something new within its pages.

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Seafaring Terms

While the terms used on a ship sound familiar to me, I often don't really know what they mean. Many people recognize that a cabin is a room, and a porthole is a window, but what exactly is a purser, and which direction is the stern? If you're not sure, the definitions of the seafaring expressions below - all used in The Cat's Table - might help you navigate the book.

  • officers' mess: The room where the officers eat.

  • purser: An officer who handles financial accounts and keeps money and valuables for the passengers.

  • pilot: Someone who is brought on to help the ship safely navigate difficult passages, often while leaving or entering a harbor. While on an airplane the pilot is likely the Captain, on a ship he almost never is. The pilot...

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