Review Blog

May 23 2012

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

cover image

Jonathan Cape, 2011. ISBN 9780224093620.
Recommended for Senior students. Aged eleven the boy Michael is sent to England from Sri Lanka on the liner the Oronsay to reunite with his mother. As an adult the narrator, now a novelist, (Ondaatje claims that the book is fictional although it uses the 'colour and locations' of autobiography) looks back on the voyage that became in more ways than one a rite of passage. Also travelling on the boat are a diverse range of characters, youngish women in search of husbands, failed musicians, entertainers, thieves, children going to England for school, rich old men looking for health and a manacled prisoner.
Michael is allocated a dining table so far from the Captain's that it is nicknamed the 'Cat's table' by fellow diners, who include a mysterious tailor, Miss Lasqueti, with Foreign Office connections and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. Cassius, Michael and Ramadhin make the ship theirs; they invade the lifeboats, lurk on deck late at night when the prisoner is exercised and are used by a thief to break into cabins. Although Ramadhin is constrained by asthma Michael and Cassius are indomitable. In one terrifying incident they chain themselves to the deck during a turbulent storm, and have to weather the Captain's rage as a result.
The adult Michael realizes that the voyage took him from his safe and idyllic childhood in Sri Lanka to the more turbulent years of adult life. The author takes the reader forward in time to Ramadhin's mysterious death, to Michael's marriage to his sister and to the success of Cassius as a painter. We are then returned to the voyage and the disastrous escape of the prisoner, which has been contrived by the entertainers and in which the tailor and Miss Lasqueti are implicit. The three children see death and understand culpability, then land and go back to school. As an adult Michael remembers and tries to make sense of the experience. The Jamesian theme of innocence and experience is strongly established, the novel being at its best in the descriptions of the boys' lives and observations on the liner. The adult experiences are less convincing, and the prisoner's story is melodramatic. However, the novel would make an interesting comparison with texts dealing with the themes of growing up and adolescence.
Jenny Hamilton

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