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 ...
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 (861 words).
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.
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