The Cat's Table
Michael Ondaatje
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Buy *The Cat's Table* by Michael Ondaatje online

The Cat's Table
Michael Ondaatje
288 pages
October 2011
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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The voice of 11-year-old Michael, the garrulous narrator of Ondaatje’s exotic ocean-going tale, is a joy: funny, companionable, slightly unhinged, and instilled with life-affirming ardor. He leaves his home in Colombo, Ceylon, joining the ocean liner Oronsay as it crosses the Indian Ocean to the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, and onto the Mediterranean before it finally docks at Tilbury, England.

Packing his tale with intimate details of ship travel throughout a period of great elegance, Ondaatje follows Michael’s friendship with two other boys, Ramadhin and Cassius, the three undertaking a rite of passage which will echo well into their adult lives. Distant Flavia Pins and Emily, his beautiful cousin, promise to keep an eye on him; the trip is a chance for Michael to escape order with its ship dismantlers, tailors and adult passengers: “We could not wait to continue exploring that universe.”

Michael experiences a sense of freedom. The boys make a pact that each day, they will do one thing that is forbidden. At table 76—the cat’s table, located in the least privileged place far from the Captain’s table—they begin to learn about the adults in their midst. The drama unfolds among an interesting assortment of characters: there’s mysterious Miss Perinetta Lasqueti, whose past is pivotal; Mr. Max Mazappa, who advises the trio to keep their eyes and ears open; and enigmatic Mr. Daniels, who hides poisonous plants deep in the bowels of the ship.

The Oronsay's furnace rooms churn with unbearable noise and heat. Michael sees the sweaty men, the turbines around them swiveling and flinging their pistons. There are rumors of a Ceylonese prisoner on board who murdered a judge. There’s also the mysterious presence of philanthropist Sir Hector de Silva, who suffers from a possible fatal illness and is on his way to Europe to find a doctor who will save him.

Michael is seduced by the slow waltz of the Oronsay until a storm blows in halfway across the Indian Ocean. The boys, tied by ropes to the Promenade Deck, are almost drawn into the water as the rain and sea leap over the railings and swirl across the deck: “It’s as if the ship were breaking apart which each wave.” At the stroke of midnight, the Oronsay approaches the Suez Canal, sidling alongside the giant concrete docks.

Amid ochre-colored cabins, the desert stretching away for miles, the dazzle of the red sea, the sky dark with sand, the ship enters the Mediterranean “with its eyes wide open.” Plagued by the guilt that he hadn't loved weak-hearted Ramadhin enough, Michael goes to Ramadhin’s family home in London, where he shares a life with Ramadhin’s sister. Life is like the ups and downs of the sea, and Michael’s ultimate goal is to reconnect with Emily and revisit their time on the Oronsay, where secrets of murder may be revealed.

Aspects of past and future combine in this sophisticated and nuanced story. The Cat's Table is chiefly about a boy’s sense of adventure, the Oronsay a microcosm of mystery that brings Michael unexpected delight, the memories and recollections shepherding him closer to an understanding of the sways and pulls of his heart and soul.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2011

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