Print Edition: January 25, 2012
Michael Ondaatje’s new book The Cat’s Table is an intimate tale of a young boy’s journey from Colombo to England on the ocean liner, the Oronsay. The boy, oddly enough named Michael, is accompanied by his two friends Cassius, who is somewhat rambunctious, and Ramdhim who is known for his emotionality. Together the three children accompany a group of wayward adults at the back corner of the dining hall at the table known as “the cat’s table.” Each of the adults has their own stories to tell; about their pasts or their interactions with each other. All of these histories and actions are viewed through Michael’s eyes, giving the book a childish spin on the adult world around him. The children begin wandering about the ship, learning as they go and meeting other men and women from other classes of the ship. As the journey continues they begin to learn more about themselves and slowly mature as their perceptions of the world around them begin to change. Throughout the book they become open to the worlds of intrigue, villainy, self-preservation, sexuality and other people.
Ondaatje has been known for his poetic prose, and it is obvious his style has not changed in this book. His new novel takes a deep introspective look at the life of a young boy as he immigrates to a new home. The poetic style of Ondaatje’s writing brings home the emotional connection to the characters to such an extent that the division from book and reality becomes blurred. In many ways the thoughts and emotions of the children seem so real, proving once again that Michael Ondaatje is a master of his craft.
For being such a layered introspective adventure, The Cat’s Table is surprisingly an easy read. The joys of Ondaatje’s novels are not only in the style of his prose, but in the ease of their read. A good novel should be one that can be picked up at any time and read without strain, and this novel certainly delivers. With such a wide cast of characters from the table and elsewhere on the Oronsay, there is always something fresh. The protagonist Michael’s eyes are the gateway into the world around him. The boy gets into nearly everything and interacts with everyone, bringing an almost episodic feel to the adventure.
As Michael visits with those around him, his actions affect their lives. The character grows from an ignorant child into someone who can perceive his own actions within the world around him. The tale reminds us that we are intrinsic parts of the world we live in and that we all contribute to the lives around us. The Cat’s Table is a beautiful reminder of the simple facts of life, and that anything can happen and adventures are around the corner; but also that growing up is an inevitable part of life. Once again Michael Ondaatje has brought us another masterful novel that is worth adding to our collections. It is a solid book with heart and undeniable character.