26 August 2022

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

I am very hit and miss with Ondaatje novels but the ones I love, I love so much that I keep plugging away at them. The Cat's Table is one of his 'newer' novels from 2011 and my version is clearly old and used which is a real shame because I've seen the intended cover for this book and it's gorgeous. I must have found it at a secondhand bookstore at some point. Having the pretty cover would have pleased me because the book itself certainly not going on my favourites list...

The book is about a child named Michael who gets on a boat from Sri Lanka to the UK and gets seated at "The Cat's Table" which is the furthest from the Captain for dining. The Cat's Table is full of all the other misfits on board and the book details the passage through Michael's eyes, and then also Michael reflecting on it as an adult. 

Michael Ondaatje

In my experience I've found Ondaatje's novels to be pretty plot-focused whereas The Cat's Table I would consider more of a character study. Michael befriends two other young boys on board and the three of them get up to mischief as they interact with a variety of other characters. Immediately I was struck by the similarities to Moby Dick (you can read through our book club Moby Dick saga here - I'd be interested in re-reading these chronicles myself as there's no way they don't sound like a cry for help). Needless to say, the comparison didn't bode well for The Cat's Table

In spite of this, our table's status on the Oronsay continued to be minimal, while those at the Captain's Table were constantly toasting one another's significance. That was a small lesson I learned on the journey. What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along in the familiar rut they have made for themselves."

As is typical for an Ondaatje novel, there is a major theme of class throughout. Michael is not rich and is constantly observing those who are and how they are living aboard the ship. He meets two other young boys who he spends most of the passage with and they sneak up early every morning to play around on the higher class levels of the boat. Such a quintessential child thing to do. 

If I'm being honest, there was not much that I enjoyed about this. In the past I've enjoyed reading Ondaatje's writing about romance or the Sri Lankan landscape, neither of which are present here. I also think it was Meg who told me once she couldn't bear to read writing narrated by a child. I think we were discussing Emma Donoghue's Room, which is much more "child" language than this, but I have to agree that it's hard to connect with. 

I'm not giving up on the stuff I have left to read of Ondaatje's over this but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

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