The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. McClelland & Stewart 2011.
The Cat’s Table was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize this year. Ondaatje requested that the book be withdrawn from consideration for the Governor General’s Literary Award, saying:
“This was done as I have received it many times and felt I should not enter a book again. The GG award has been very important to me and I greatly respect it and what it has done for our literature.”
Indeed, Ondaatje is a five-time winner of the GG Award, and as you would expect with such a well-regarded writer, The Cat’s Table is a good book. At its heart is a three-week sea voyage from Ceylon to England. Eleven-year-old Michael, who is sailing to England to rejoin his mother, finds himself seated at the cat’s table, the table farthest from the Captain’s table, where those holding little prestige find themselves dining. Also at the cat’s table are two other young boys who become his constant companions and fellow trouble-seekers for the next 21 days. For they quickly realize that, unaccompanied by watchful adults, while on the ship they can enjoy a liberty rarely available to them. They roam the ship and spy on others undetected.
Sections of The Cat’s Table reminded me of a Dylan Thomas poem, offering an almost dreamlike celebration of the carefree days of youth. However, the voyage is overtaken by darker events. A prisoner is being carried to England to stand trial for murder. The boys are fascinated by the prisoner, and become caught up in his story when Michael’s cousin befriends a young passenger related to the prisoner. Events that take place on the ship will reverberate in the future, touching Michael in ways he could never have anticipated.
The Cat’s Table is remarkable for the seamless manner in which Ondaatje knits together the story of shipboard life with details of Michael’s adult life. The tale is beautifully crafted and a satisfying read. Nevertheless, I found The Cat’s Table lacking in the sort of passion or novelty that makes the characters important to the reader, and thus memorable.