Announcing our Top 20 Books of 2022

BookBrowse Reviews The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Cat's Table

A Novel

by Michael Ondaatje

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje X
The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Oct 2011, 288 pages

    Jun 2012, 288 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Beverly Melven
Buy This Book

About this Book



The vivid narrative of one boy's voyage at sea and the experiences that shaped his adulthood

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.

Reviewed by Beverly Melven

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in October 2011, and has been updated for the July 2012 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Seafaring Terms

Join and Save 20%!

Become a member and
discover exceptional books.

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket
    by Richard Powers
    In 2019, Richard Powers won the Pulitzer Prize for The Overstory, a sprawling novel whose characters...
  • Book Jacket: I'm the Girl
    I'm the Girl
    by Courtney Summers
    YA author Courtney Summers doesn't believe in shielding her teenage readers from the world's darkest...
  • Book Jacket: They're Going to Love You
    They're Going to Love You
    by Meg Howrey
    Teenage Carlisle lives with her mother in Ohio, but their relationship has never felt particularly ...
  • Book Jacket: The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen
    The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen
    by Isaac Blum
    That irreplaceable feeling of everyone knowing your name. The yearning to be anonymous. Parents ...

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Family Izquierdo
    by Rubén Degollado

    A masterful debut that weaves together the lives of three generations of a Mexican American family bound by love, and a curse.


Solve this clue:

W N, W Not

and be entered to win..

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
Cradles of the Reich
by Jennifer Coburn
Three women, a nation seduced by a madman, and the Nazi breeding program to create a so-called master race.
Who Said...

These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.