Thursday, 8 August 2013

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje (3.5/5)

First published: 2011
Page count: 366

The back says: In the early 1950s, eleven-year-old Michael boards a huge liner in Colombo bound for England. At mealtimes he is seated at the lowly ‘cat’s table’ – as far from the Captain’s Table as can be – with a ragtag group of adults and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. As the ship crosses the Indian Ocean the boys tumble from one adventure to another, and at night they spy on a shackled prisoner – his crime and fate a mystery that will haunt them forever.
I say: I can’t recall where I heard about this novel or why I decided to borrow it from the library because it sounds nothing like what I normally enjoy reading. However, I was rather pleased with the story and pleasantly surprised at how literary it was.

The narrative weaves between the three weeks Michael spent on the ship, tales of what happened when they all arrived to England and his present whereabouts, and for the most part it worked. We get to know a bit more about some of the passengers than the others, and I think my disappointment lies in the focus being on the people I had the least interest in. The three boys spend their days getting up to random mischief and their nights spying on a prisoner that is allowed to walk the deck when the other passengers have gone to bed.
More than anything, this is a coming-of-age story that shows how a short period of time, or a few select people, can come to change a person’s life; and how differently things seem when you look back at them years later. Michael says several times that he isn’t quite sure if her remembers certain episodes or if they are dreams he’s had, and it’s in this uncertainty that we realise how deeply that voyage touched him, and how urgently he must have been avoiding it. As the story progresses we realise why things, and people, turned out the way they did (well, some of them) and his avoidance becomes more understandable.

There’s a sort of mystery about the prisoner and the main passengers that I didn’t particularly care for. Even though Ondaatje has managed to create diverse and rather original characters that were, for the most part, interesting and entertaining, I couldn’t help but feel that they were all pointing towards something. Everything that was said felt like a clue, and though I did manage to figure out some things before they happened, I don’t like mysteries, so that ruined the story for me.
I must mention that there are some passages of beautiful writing – mostly the ones where Michael is realising something about himself and his past – that I wish would have made up more of the novel. As it is, 3.5/5 is what I will give it.

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