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The Cat's Table [Deckle Edge] [Paperback]

Michael Ondaatje
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
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Book Description

June 12 2012

In the early 1950s in Ceylon an eleven-year-old boy is put alone aboard a ship bound for England. At mealtimes he is seated at the insignificant "cat's table"--as far from the Captain's table as can be--with two other lone boys and a small group of strange fellow passengers: one appears to be a shadowy figure from the British Secret Service; another a mysterious thief, another seems all too familiar with the dangerous ways of women and crime. On the long sea voyage across the Indian Ocean and through the Suez Canal, the three boys rush from one wild adventure and startling discovery to another: experiencing the first stirrings of desire, spying at night on a notorious shackled prisoner, moving easily between the decks and holds of the ship. As the secretive adult world is slowly revealed, they begin to realize that a drama is unfolding on board, and the prisoner's crime and fate will be a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them and link them forever.

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"A completely original orchestration of a coming-of-age story, memoir, maritime adventure as powerful as Conrad or Stevenson.... Astonishing."
—Howard Norman, The Globe and Mail

"Ondaatje's most accessible, most compelling novel to date."
—Robert J Wiersema, The Vancouver Sun

"Michael Ondaatje is the greatest living writer in the English language.... All that is great in his other books is fully present in The Cat's Table."
—Aleksander Hemon, The Wall Street Journal (Favourite Book of 2011)

"The most beautiful, haunting and ageless book I've read this year."
—Pico Iyer, The Hindu

About the Author

MICHAEL ONDAATJE is the author of five previous novels, a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and several books of poetry. The English Patient won the Booker Prize; Anil's Ghost won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Giller Prize, and the Prix Médicis. Born in Sri Lanka, Ondaatje now lives in Toronto.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
60 of 62 people found the following review helpful
By Friederike Knabe TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In his new novel, The Cat's Table, Michael Ondaatje imagines a young boy's three-week sea voyage across the oceans, from his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to England. Surprisingly, the eleven-year-old travels alone and is, not surprisingly, allocated to the "lowly" Cat's Table, where he joins an odd assortment of adults and two other boys of similar age. In the voice of young "Michael", Ondaatje shares the boys' adventures on the ship with charming immediacy, while an older, adult "Michael" looks over his shoulder, first hardly noticeable, and later, more and more directly reflecting on his own recollections and more. Are we reading a childhood memoir of sorts, a coming-of-age story, a personal journey into the past? Are we reading fact or fiction? May be, all of it. The parallels to the author's life are easily spotted: a childhood in Ceylon, a nineteen fifties journey by ship from there to England... Other parallels to the author's life come into view in the course of the book. Also, Ondaatje suggests in the first pages: "I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was..." In the Author's Note (at the end of the book) Ondaatje is as clear and opaque as can be. If you don't want to know, don't look at the end and discover the journey as it unfolds.

Young Michael and his two new friends, Cassius and Ramadhin, become soon inseparable. They freely roam the huge ship, exploring any nook and cranny they can get into, especially during nights. Cassius is the rambunctious, Ramadhin, the cautious, more reasonable one, conscious of his "weak heart". Michael describes himself as a "follower".
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More Bookish Thoughts... Sept. 25 2011
By Reader Writer Runner TOP 50 REVIEWER
I willingly admit that Michael Ondaatje's novels do not rank among my favourites; I found "The English Patient" melodramatic, "Anil's Ghost" tedious and "In The Skin of a Lion" only barely engaging. However, when a Canadian literary icon releases a new and critically acclaimed novel, I have to jump on the bandwagon so as not to miss out.

During a recent interview, Ondaatje quipped that the story line of "The Cat's Table" consists of, "A boy [Michael] getting on a boat...and getting off a boat." Fortunately, the plot develops beyond such a reduction. On a 1950s voyage from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to England, the reader meets three young boys who, free from adult guardians, find opportunities to spy, assist in burglary, smoke unknown substances, and speculate on human behavior. A slew of eccentrics join these boys at their dining table, sharing world knowledge and personal stories: a tailor, a botanist, a burned-out pianist, a retired ship junker and a mysterious spinster. A chained murderer, a deaf girl, an upper-class woman who largely neglects her role as Michael's caretaker and Michael's comely cousin complete the novel's cast of skillfully manipulated and mysterious characters. Each personality harbours secrets, which emerge both on board the Oronsay and during the flash-forwards that dominate the book's latter half.

I have always revered Ondaatje as a poet for he has an incredible ability to manipulate the intricacies of space and time. This skill shines in "The Cat's Table," producing a spare yet lucid story that engages the reader's intellect. The storyline moves fluidly while the author leaves enough unsaid for his audience to play an active role in piecing together his puzzle.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Memories as fluid as an ocean Oct. 21 2011
Michael Ondaatje's admirers await his books with patient anticipation. In return, Ondaatje crafts works such as The Cat's Table, one of those rare literary achievements that combines page-turning storytelling with perfectly shaped prose. Each word and each scene has been chosen with care, and the book comes together in a harmony of ideas, memories, and narratives.

I say narratives because The Cat's Table encompasses many stories: in its seemingly straightforward telling of a boy's 21 days on a ship bound from Sri Lanka to England, its deeply complex characters offer glimpses of chance encounters and intermingled lives. The book is a palimpsest, the story of an 11-year-old boy named Michael, told by his older self who happens to be a well-known writer, written by Michael Ondaatje, who includes a disclaimer that while he took a similar trip as a boy, this work is purely fictional. These three Michaels intersect with one another in a memory play seen through the lens of the ship. The language and reflections are mature: this is the understanding only an adult can bring when he looks back at himself years later, trying to come to grips with how the smallest of actions can ripple through many lives over many years.

The titular Cat's Table is the opposite of the Captain's Table, the least prestigious spot in the dining room. The characters who gather around it pass through young Michael's shipbound existence, from his two contemporaries who raise hell with him all over the ship to the adults at the table. You get the sense that an entire novel could be devoted to any one of these subsidiary characters, even though they figure in only small ways in Michael's story.
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Most recent customer reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars A rather boring story...
The comments on the book jacket would make you expect a brilliant, engaging and entertaining story. I don't get it. The first half of the book is mostly very boring. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Pat the cat
4.0 out of 5 stars Travel experience of a young boy
The era of traveling on a ship for a long distance to go home to a family he barely new was interesting and showed how adventuresome young boys can be when they are left on their... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Fred Rankine
5.0 out of 5 stars A journey into manhood
I loved the colourful but believable characters in this book. Ondaatje takes the tale of a young Celanese boy who boards a ship to sail to England to join the mother that he... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Gaye Keep
2.0 out of 5 stars Not my cup of tea. Disliked it.
Felt it dragged on and did not capture my attention at all. Would not recommend it at all to anyone.
Published 10 months ago by Anne Cromack
2.0 out of 5 stars Have read better books
The subject not attractive or interesting enough and the pace of story was extremely slow. I have read better books from M. Ondaatje, but this one was not what I was hoping for.
Published 12 months ago by A. Boustani
3.0 out of 5 stars A well written book
but...boring. Sorry, maybe that`s just me, but I found this book extremely slow. I am a voracious reader, and just finished a 700 page war saga that was captivating, so perhaps my... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Cheveraj
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting characters
I loved the story of Michael's voyage on the Oronsay. The characters were well-written, quirky, and believable. The story could actually have been longer... Read more
Published 14 months ago by Mo Mo
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome
Very rich writing and amazing descriptions. The characters come alive, and it feels like you can see what they're seeing. I ended up buying this for a couple people for Christmas.
Published 22 months ago by Alice A MacGregor
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable reading
Ondaatje is a great storyteller. I really enjoyed this book. There were couple of spots were it dragged a little but overall it was a truly enjoyable read.
Published 24 months ago by Angelgirl
5.0 out of 5 stars Colonials
A look into the exprienses of residnts of a British colony
other than Canada. A subtle study of relationships.
Cuting.and realistic.
Published on Aug. 29 2012 by shea
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