I think we all have those times in our childhood that seem to define the adult we've become - or else suggest the person we wish we were. In The Cat's Table, we encounter the vividly imagined adventure of an 11-year-old boy on an ocean-liner trip from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to England in the 1950s, as told by the grown man who traces all the features of his current life back to that voyage. How different would he have been if not for that journey?
The boy, known as Mynah, has been living with his aunt and uncle for several years since his mother moved to England. He is sent to live with her - traveling without a guardian - and he leaves everything he knows behind, heading for a world he can't really picture. The three weeks he spends on this huge ship/playground are something like heaven for a pre-teen boy. However, the man, Michael, has a life of no firm connections; his current existence seems to be organized around events that connect back to that voyage.
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.
I love the way the other passengers on the ship only matter to the extent that they relate to the boys. We learn almost nothing about them that wasn't learned by Mynah, Cassius, and Ramadhin; their histories are mostly the invention of pre-adolescent boys who find shipboard musicians proper idols and regular ladies boring (until they think one might have a pistol in her bag). This sketchiness keeps the reader firmly in Mynah's perspective - and helped me feel like I was a kid again, too.
I am a huge Ondaatje fan, so I was actually a bit disappointed with The Cat's Table. The story was compelling, the characters excellent, and you could almost smell the ocean and see the locks of the Suez Canal, but most of his books mean something more than a good story and a great experience - they have a depth to them that was missing from this one.
That said, this is a really good book. The afterword states most clearly that this entire story is indeed fictional - which is all that prevented me from heading to Google to find out how much of it was autobiographical. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Ondaatje explains that by giving the main character his own name, Michael, "it strangely insisted on me making the narrator more fictional. Now he had to be fictional. Had to be different from the real me. I did take such a trip as a boy of 11, but strangely, barely remember or recall it.... But I wanted to suggest a general 'colouring' of memoir, making the narrator a writer and making him a boy from Sri Lanka... make it more intimate. But it is fiction." And so it was easy to imagine that it all felt so real because it had been real. But it's not necessarily a good memory, it's good writing.
This review was originally published in October 2011, and has been updated for the June 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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