59 of 61 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "It would always be strangers like them, at the various Cat's Tables of my life, who would alter me..."
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...
Published 21 months ago by Friederike Knabe
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointingly bland
I usually don t buy books without some checking unless they are certain beloved authors. And that method sometimes burns me. This is one such occasion, and I have to agree with the reviewer D Forbes who said that it doesn t much matter if you read this one or not. It is a story, mildly evocative, somewhat tedious to read. It dragged on beside my bed for 4 nights,
Published 20 months ago by test 2
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59 of 61 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "It would always be strangers like them, at the various Cat's Tables of my life, who would alter me...",
This review is from: The Cat's Table (Hardcover)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". The men at the Cat's Table, astutely observed by young Michael, while distinct in personality and behaviour, share, nonetheless, their curiosity for the happenings on the ship - one could call theirs "the gossip table" - and, more importantly, they each provide some kind of "life lesson" for the boys, be it in history, music, literature or biology. The most intriguing passenger at the table, however, is Miss Lasqueti, who appears to have insider knowledge of a very different kind. From time to time, they are joined by seventeen-year-old, beautiful and "mysterious" Emily, a distant cousin of Michael's. Given her "higher social standing" and her placement in the dining room, she can contribute intriguing news for any evolving "story". She knows, for example, much about the dangerous, heavily guarded, prisoner, who the boys have noticed during their nighttime adventures. Of course, Emily also has her secret encounters at night, overheard by Michael hiding in a lifeboat...
For the first half or so of the novel, I am simply charmed by the descriptions of the boys' hilarious or risky escapades on the ship as it moves across the Indian Ocean towards the Suez Canal. We explore the ship's "world" through a child's eyes. The episodes, told more like independent vignettes than in a contiguous narrative, succeed, nonetheless, in carrying our curiosity forward: they captures the atmosphere on ship, provide personality capsules of passengers or crew, and details of their various activities. Once closer to land, we are offered glimpses into the varying landscapes and port cities. While Michael's journey is depicted with gentleness and often lyrical descriptions, something seems to be missing in terms of the story's overall meaning and depth - at least for me. But soon enough, like entering a new section in the book, the voice of the adult Michael takes on a more prominent role. He drops hints how different episodes or people might be connected; he starts asking questions about the veracity of what we have been told, pondering the reliability of his long-term memory...
And, most engagingly, Ondaatje, while continuing to remain within the overall three-week time span of the journey, now leaves it with ease to reveal aspects of past and future of several of the central characters. These mental excursions - relating to Emily, Miss Lasqueti, Ramadhin, etc. and, last but not least, the prisoner - help us fill in gaps within earlier descriptions of episodes during the voyage. They also add an integrating layer to the narrative that I had been hoping for. Finally, they bring us also closer to the adult Michael. It is only later in life that he realizes the journey's importance as "a rite of passage"; a journey that formed him in more ways than he has acknowledged for a long time. In hindsight he can give voice to an emotion that he experienced then and many times since as he grew into an adult as "a desire that is a mixture of thrill and vertigo." Emily, when he meets her again, much later, has the better phrase for what affected them: "We all became adults before we were adults."
In the end, it does not matter anymore - at least to me - whether this book is a novel or a memoir/autobiography. It is a beautifully rendered story of growing up and living with the memories of youth. The novel's language, the tone, the images and the tender approach to his subject suggest that this is probably Ondaatje's most personal and intimate novel in many years. [Friederike Knabe]
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More Bookish Thoughts...,
This review is from: The Cat's Table (Hardcover)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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Memories as fluid as an ocean,
This review is from: The Cat's Table (Hardcover)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.
Without ever belabouring a description, Ondaatje fills the reader's world with the sights, sounds, and smells of the ship and the ports it slips through. He also inverts the idea of the ship as a closed-off setting, creating a wonderland with myriad decks and enough forbidden places to keep a gang of three boys busy for weeks. It is peopled by ailing millionaires, live pigeons, unseen violinists, and the prisoner, a mysterious figure whose close-guarded nightly walks become a focal point for the boys, giving their days structure and their imaginations fodder. And there is always the sense that there is more to see, more to hear and overhear, than anything Michael and his friends can comprehend.
Memory and time are as fluid as the ocean the ship traverses, a moment in childhood with momentum but no fixed address. The narrative is overall a linear one, starting at the beginning of the journey, ending when the Oronsay arrives in England, but this is also a collection of stories. As the older Michael reflects on a particular character, events jump forward in time, following that character's interaction with Michael throughout the years before looping back to pick up where we left off on the ship. We arrive at the end of the book a little wiser, a little changed, just as the characters at the Cat's Table are.
Without falling into the triteness of a typical coming-of-age story, The Cat's Table offers a refined, note-perfect journey of how three weeks can alter the course of lives. I genuinely cared for these people and their misadventures, and when it was time to depart for other shores, I was left hoping that I would run into them again.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfection!,
This review is from: The Cat's Table (Hardcover)I have always admired Michael Ondaatje's writing and this time out is no exception. The Cat's Table took me back to my Atlantic Crossing en route to England (from Canada) in 1960; the book revived scenes from my own voyage that sprang back to life for me as young Mynah (fearful and fearless) traveled over, around, above- and belowdecks on the Oronsays, en route to England. For me, any piece of writing that, because of its essential truth, becomes personal to the reader in the course of its narrative is writing of the highest order. Ondaatje's ability to craft a novel that weaves multiple strands from other lives into that of his central character is peerless. Everything feels inevitable, appropriately placed. Years after the fact, I still recall moments from The English Patient or Anil's Ghost. I applaud and envy the texture of the writing and the circularity of this narrative. I will now, for a long time to come, be recalling moments from The Cat's Table too. This is a book not to be missed.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful adventure!,
This review is from: The Cat's Table (Hardcover)This is a beautiful tale that unwinds itself at a leisure pace and packs a wallop ending which I won't tell). Based on the real event of Ondaatje's own travel from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) to England when he was a young boy, the tale centers around a young boy called Michael traveling to see his mother after years of absense (Ondaatje does point outbthat most of the events and characters were made up). The Cat's Table refers to the table the boy and his companions are positioned to eat at which includes two other boys, his older cousin, a musician down on his luck, a botanist and an eccentric woman who wears a jacket for her pigeons. Quite the cast. As the tale unravels there is more here that meets the eye - enter a band of circus performers, a mute girl and a prisoner who is kept below decks and two policemen to watch the prisoner. Something seems a miss?
Ondaatje marvelously weaves the tale by first telling us about the journey and then jumps to the future explaining what has happened to various lead characters. Then one grasps that our Michael is searching for clues about an event that happens during that journey. He does so easily that the travel tale becomes a mystery without myself realizing it and yet it is a reflection about the last vestiges of childhood that occurred on that trip.
Like Liesl Schillinger's review in the New York Times, I too was awed by the ease and depth of the story. A truly enjoyable read.
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome,
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable reading,
5.0 out of 5 stars Colonials,
other than Canada. A subtle study of relationships.
5.0 out of 5 stars A Richly Woven Coming-of-Age Tale with Vivid Characters and Hidden Depths,
This review is from: The Cat's Table (Hardcover)"Even the youths shall faint and be weary,
And the young men shall utterly fall," -- Isaiah 40:30 (NKJV)
It's easy to mistake this novel for an autobiography. That's how good it is.
Michael Ondaatje deals with perspective in this story, taking as his starting point the awareness of an eleven-year-old boy on a sea voyage from Colombo to be reunited with his mother in England. In such circumstances, the boy is on the bottom of the social ladder that always seems overly important on board a ship. The book's title refers to his status as one of those assigned to the dining table furthest from the Captain's table, which is, of course, the acme of social status. The cat's table, by comparison, is at the outer edges of civilization.
Due to finding two boys he can pal around with, the boy's days and nights are filled with adventures. They probe into places that adults easily overlook or disdain to consider. As a result, they spot subtle dramas at odd hours that grab their attention. Their adult companions at the cat's table are harder for the boys to figure out. However, any gestures of sympathy and friendship are quickly grasped and enjoyed.
It's a more perilous voyage than one might imagine, as youthful pranks and escapades sometimes have important consequences.
In a few places, Mr. Ondaatje moves forward into the future to reveal "what happened next" to add shadows and dimensions to the relationships among the characters on board. These sections felt a bit awkward to me by adding a little too much intrusion into the main story's pacing and timing.
The plot may seem a bit over the top to some. I disagree. I thought the plot's scale was necessary in order to explore the book's fundamental focus on the limitations of perception and perspective. The Cat's Table certainly rewards a close reading of the novel as you go. There's an element of a mystery story here that you need to pay attention to in order to fully enjoy the story on the first reading.
Yes, this book deserves at least a second reading. You'll marvel at the author's skill when you do. It's most impressive.
When was the last time you read a novel that demanded an immediate rereading? It's all too infrequent in my experience.
5.0 out of 5 stars The Cat's Table,
This review is from: The Cat's Table (Hardcover)I chose this book for my book club. It was generally very well accepted, as a beautifully written and clever book on many levels. We are next going to read "Half-blood Blues" and examine why it won the Giller over "The Cat's Table".
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The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje (Hardcover - Aug 30 2011)
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