The Cat's Table (Vintage International)

by Michael Ondaatje

Paperback, 2012





Vintage (2012), Edition: Reprint, 288 pages


In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy in Colombo boards a ship bound for England. At mealtimes he is seated at the "cat's table"--as far from the Captain's Table as can be--with a ragtag group of "insignificant" adults and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. As the ship makes its way across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, the boys tumble from one adventure to another, bursting all over the place like freed mercury. But there are other diversions as well: one man talks with them about jazz and women, another opens the door to the world of literature. The narrator's elusive, beautiful cousin Emily becomes his confidante, allowing him to see himself "with a distant eye" for the first time, and to feel the first stirring of desire. Another Cat's Table denizen, the shadowy Miss Lasqueti, is perhaps more than what she seems. And very late every night, the boys spy on a shackled prisoner, his crime and his fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever. As the narrative moves between the decks and holds of the ship and the boy's adult years, it tells a spellbinding story--by turns poignant and electrifying--about the magical, often forbidden, discoveries of childhood and a lifelong journey that begins unexpectedly with a spectacular sea voyage.… (more)

Media reviews

Ondaatje has toned down the elevated consciousness and language that so permeated his last three novels (beginning with The English Patient). Fans will be glad to hear that the richly embroidered imagery of those works is still present, as well as the tantalizing Gothic tones of murder, lush sexuality and buried family secrets and curses...His technique, more reminiscent of a poet than a novelist, creates fascinating visual and sensual effects but makes the actual narrative of the voyage feel somewhat inert. This is probably intentional on Ondaatje’s part — he is using the Oronsay more as a point of meditation than momentum — although it does make the cinematic conclusion feel somewhat abrupt. ...The novel also contains a few too many passages of ponderous dialogue....There is much to enjoy, though, in this short, episodic novel, even for readers who may have found Ondaatje’s later works overly dense or poetic..
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The story is constructed in a series of vignettes, stitched together in episodes that move backwards and forwards like the action of a Rubik Cube. One moment we are on board ship and the next on land many years into the future. The narrative both puzzles and unexpectedly pulls us up short....Such is the quality of the writing that not until we near the novel's end do we notice a false note in the character of Niemeyer. As the shackled prisoner, so necessary for the plot, he remains two-dimensional, with neither his presence, nor the working-out of his fate, really quite believable. That said, this is a quibble in what is otherwise a beautifully crafted whole.
I had trouble with the sudden rise to prominence of the characters that dominate the last part of the book. I felt I was being given an invented answer to a fabricated question, rather than an invitation to know who Michael is....Still, this book is wonderful, offering all the best pleasures of Ondaatje’s writing: his musical prose, up-tempo; his ear for absurd, almost surreal dialogue that had me laughing out loud in public as I read; his admiration for craftsmanship and specialized language in the sciences and the trades; and his sumptuous evocations of sensual delight.

User reviews

LibraryThing member mckait
This is a tale of a voyage from Sri Lanka to London on a ship named Oronsay, as seen through the eyes of a young boy traveling alone. The people at the Cats Table, that is, the one the most distant from the important Captain's table, make up much of this story. They and the others on board that eleven year old Michael meets along the way. Cassius, Ramadhin, to other boys at the table become his fast friends and the adventures and fascination begin almost immediately. A young lady, or a Spinster, as they say was along for the ride. as was a piano player, past his prime. There was also a tailor and a ship junker as well. A ship junker was a person who helped to dismantle ships when their time at sea was done. Most interesting to me was the botanist, who had an entire garden of useful plants along with him for the trip to his new home. Oh, and Mr Fonseka, teacher met on the voyage who read to the boys and shared stories with them was a small player in the story, but I think a larger one in the story of the lives of these boys.

Then among the wealthy passengers was one Sir Hector de Silva was traveling to England against the advice of doctors treating his hydrophobia. He was afflicted due to the curse of a monk to whom he had shown disrespect. He traveled with two Doctors and a Ayurvedic Healer, as well as his family. His fate was intertwined with that of the boys in an unexpected way.

I loved this book. It was like sitting beside a fire and hearing a story from the past, told by a good and gentle friend. You will meet artists and prisoners and beautiful girls along the way. You will be told of the antics of these boys and you will surely disapprove as I did at times, but you will cheer them on and sigh with relief. You will be brought into the their lives as men and learn their fates, and it will all be done in a most pleasant way.
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LibraryThing member kidzdoc
Michael is a precocious yet naïve 11 year old boy living with relatives in Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, in the mid 1950s. His mother, who divorced from her husband years before and moved to England, has sent for her son. He is placed aboard a spacious ocean liner for the three week journey, supposedly under the watchful eye of a wealthy friend of the family, but he is essentially left to fend for himself when he is not dining at "the cat's table", so named because it is situated far away from the tables of the captain and the most important passengers.

Michael quickly makes the acquaintance of two other preadolescent boys; Cassius, a troublesome betel-chewing older boy, who was expelled from school but has been selected to attend school in England; and Ramadhin, an introspective and mournful lad. The three unsupervised boys wreak mild to moderate havoc throughout the journey, occasionally accompanied by Michael's alluring and wild teenage cousin Emily, yet they remain just out of reach of harm's way.

The boys encounter and are befriended by a variety of intriguing adult passengers, including an alluring older woman who maintains a stock of birds and wears a coat with pockets for them to be displayed; a musician with two names and even more secrets; and a wealthy man who is dying from a curse placed upon him by a religious man and desperately seeks a cure in Europe. The most mysterious passenger is kept in shackles for a particularly heinous crime, and is only allowed on deck late at night, where the boys observe him with fascination, fear and respect.

The journey marks a transition from the innocence of childhood to the tragedies and disappointments of adulthood for the three boys, although they emerge physically unscathed. The second half of the book describes their intertwined lives, which continue to be influenced by the events of the voyage.

The Cat's Table is a compelling drama, filled with comedy, irreverence and intrigue, with well portrayed characters. Ondaatje does a masterful job in describing the voyage aboard the ocean liner, the mindset of Michael and his young companions, and the sense of ever present menace that held this reader's attention throughout the book. I can't understand why this wasn't selected for this year's Booker Prize longlist, as it compares well with the best of the lot, but it should be a strong contender for this year's Giller Prize.
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LibraryThing member dmsteyn
Who hath desired the Sea? Her excellent loneliness rather
Than forecourts of kings…
- Rudyard Kipling

An excellent, lyrical book, very affecting and interesting. Despite its main conceit of an ocean voyage as life-changing event having been done many times before (e.g. William Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth), and done well, Ondaatje manages to keep the book surprising and varied through his excellent delineation of character. The novel is autobiographical in a sense (the main character is named Michael, and Ondaatje made a similar voyage as a child), but only in the same sense that Coetzee’s Scenes from Provincial Life is autobiographical. As Ondaatje puts it, ‘Although the novel sometimes uses the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography, The Cat’s Table is fictional... down to the narrator.’

Michael makes the 13-day journey from Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) to England, stopping at Aden and Port Said, and passing through the Suez Canal on the way. Although this is the first book by Ondaatje that I have read, I have heard of his beautiful writing before. This is amply demonstrated throughout the book. What impressed me especially was the sympathy with which Ondaatje draws his characters. From Michael’s two friends, brash Cassius and weak-hearted Ramadhin, to the other members of the ship’s ‘cat’s table’ (the dinner table for the poorer passengers), they are all plausible human beings. Ondaatje also provides some intrigue by keeping the reader in the dark about some of the characters, such as a shackled prisoner who is only allowed to walk the deck late at night. The main mystery of the book is worked out interestingly, and despite not being a ‘mystery book’, it kept me guessing for a while. One might criticise Ondaatje for being a tad too explicit in revealing this secret, but as I said, this mystery is only secondary to the book’s meaning.

My favourite aspect of the book was Ondaatje’s depiction of the narrator’s friendship with Cassius and Ramadhin. This is done beautifully with a verisimilitude that is rarely achieved in fiction, which usually depicts the friendships of boys either through rose-tinted spectacles, or as one damn adventure after the other. Although there is an element of escapade to Michael’s friendship, it is mainly posited in order to undermine the traditional depiction of ‘boys’ own adventure’. Ramadhin is shown to be an intelligent, thoughtful boy who, despite his ill-health, still supports his friends. Cassius, despite his belligerence, proves to be a caring if damaged boy. Ondaatje shows how their friendship develops during the days of the voyage, and he also depicts how this relationship continued (and ended) after the voyage. It is a poignant tale of young blood coming to its first boil, realising the hard truths of adolescence and adulthood.

The story can be sad; it can also be funny. My favourite character was Mr Fonseka, a Ceylonese man on his way to teach in England. He is wise and very humane. He is also very widely read; it is he who says the above quotation from Kipling during a burial at sea. His friendship with the boys is, in the end, life-affirming as he helps them deal with their losses and burgeoning self-awareness.

A very good book, worth one’s time and attention. I will be reading more of Ondaatje.
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LibraryThing member vancouverdeb
No need to rush out and purchase The Cat's Table . Whether you choose to read it or not, you will not lose out either way. I am glad that my copy was from the library.

While Ondaatje takes pains to tell us that the book is fictional,it reads like an impressionistic memoir.
Our eleven year old ( and sometimes adult) narrator Michael tells the tale of traveling by ship from Colombo Sri Lanka to the UK.The cat's table is where the least privileged sit to eat meals.

The book is not a demanding read,nor does it give much back.The story moves very slowly, there are some interesting characters and small events, but overall The Cat's Table is a somewhat boring read.The supposed climax is a rather large anti-climax. I certainly enjoy many slow paced reads,but I expect there to be something of interest to ponder on from such a novel. This was not the case with The Cat's Table.

Quoting from the book jacket"The Cat's Table is a thrilling, deeply moving novel" , I must admit that I found the book to be neither.

Why is the book on the Giller LongList? Because the author is Michael Ondjaatje. I struggled with whether to give this book 3 or 3.5 stars, but I gave it 3.5 stars because the book was of some interest.
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LibraryThing member lunacat
It's the early 1950's and Michael, an eleven year old Sri Lankan boy boards a ship heading to England, to his mother and to a new life. He, and two other boys of the same age, Cassius and Ramadhin, are seated at the Cat's table for meals, placed furthest away from the Captain's table and well known to be the lowliest seating.

As they roam the vast ocean-liner, getting up to mischief as only young boys can, they begin to form relationships with other passengers, particularly those placed at their table, but also those they inadvertently stumble across. In particular for Michael, there is his cousin Emily, two years older and mysterious and distant with it.

The structure of the novel, whilst predominantly focused on the events transpiring on board, drifts at times with the wanderings of memory we all go through, and Michael visits the days of his childhood running wild and barefoot through dusty streets, and snapshots of his life after arriving in England.

There is never too much detail given, each character eking out aspects of their story as seen through innocent eyes, and the various mysteries, beauties and fears that form get heightened as they travel closer and closer to the end of their journey. The writing is beautiful at times, but sometimes the lyricism means sacrificing a connection with the people and their lives. Various scenes are captivating, such as the description of the huge ship creeping its way through the Suez canal, but the links between them can feel a little arduous at times.

In the end the events, both those caused by the boys and those simply witnessed by them, shape the trios lives in different ways. Nothing is quite as it seems, and the confines of a vast ship result in tangled webs linking them all indelibly together, even when they don't want to be. This is a skillful novel with well defined protagonists who have genuine back stories but never show their full hand.
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LibraryThing member JGolomb
"The Cat's Table" by Michael Ondaatje is an intriguing novel. Like fish to bait, I was drawn to Ondaatje's series of innocuous vignettes that fleshed out a plot and bit by bit teased out the characters in bite-sized chunks.

This deeply affecting and multilayered story orbits around three boys cruising from Sri Lanka to England in the early 1950s. The primary character, Michael (although we only find out his name 50 or so pages in), is traveling on his own to meet his Mother. He and two other boys, Cassius and Ramidhan, have the run of the ship as the reader is taken on a tour of their mostly (but not exclusively) insignificant trouble making and mischief. In Michael's own words, "...the fact that I was on my own...was itself an adventure. I had no family responsibilities. I could go anywhere, do anything. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden."

One cannot help but read the coming-of-age theme built around the 11-year old Michael. The theme might seem cliched, but Ondjaatje's deft mastery of language and his manipulation of plot is what distinguishes this as literature rather than mere fiction.

The Cat's Table refers to the assigned table in the dining room of the ship that’s furthest from the Captain. At this table, the boys are joined by a number of other characters, all adults and all outcasts to some extent. Michael's interactions with the adults on the ship, he realizes, are formulating his impression of adults and building his initial views into his own future adult world.

The trip was an opportunity to observe and orbit around an adult world while still playing the part of a child. He says, "We were learning about adults simply by being in their midst. We felt patterns emerging..." And if to underline the cruise's metaphorical transportation from Michaels' childhood into his adulthood, he finds himself in front of a mirror and narrates, "It was the image of my youth that I would hold on to for years--someone startled, half formed, who had not become anyone or anything yet."

We are introduced to a smattering of other characters throughout the story: Michael's cousin Emily, Ramadhin's sister Massi, and the very enigmatic man in chains - a prisoner who's allowed on deck for only a short while each night. It's the well-paced and dramatic unraveling of the prisoner's story that creates one of the signature "Ah-Ha!" moments in the novel. Much of the last third of the book occurs in Michael’s present where Ondaatje focuses on his growth, the transformation of his relationships with those from the ship, and his synthesis of his past and present. And like real life, not all conclusions are neatly packaged.

Throughout the novel, there are hints at where the story is leading. Some of the hints abruptly foreshadow plot lines. Some hints aren't quite recognizable until the initial plot thread becomes knotted with a related thread farther along in the book.

Through most of the interactions on the ship, Ondaatje writes very short chapters creating almost movie-like quick-cuts from scene to scene. I realized that this is how memories work. Usually, one doesn't remember an entire day, but rather moments that have burned into one's memory through the intensity of the experience. I believe that Ondaatje wrote these scenes very purposefully. First, to create very succinct and clear threads that, over time, flesh out Michael's experiences. Second, these flash memories become part of the story itself. They create a pace and expectation on behalf of the reader that propels his experience with the characters.

Michael reflects on the stories of his life, which are in essence, a unification of memories. He narrates, "There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You find in this way the path of your life."
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LibraryThing member VivienneR
This is a story of a boy travelling unaccompanied from Sri Lanka to England in 1954. He was in the group of the least privileged passengers who sat at the cat's table, the one furthest from the captain's table. This was an audiobook read by the author. It has a dreamy, ethereal quality in both the story content and in the narration. Ondaatje's voice brings a distinct personal quality to the story that makes it mesmerizing. It causes the reader to believe that there is personal experience involved in at least part of the story although Ondaatje claims not. He has a remarkable talent for creating beautiful phrases: "She had a laugh that hinted it had rolled around once or twice in mud". The characters and events are captivating; the description of Aden dazzling. I can recommend Ondaatje's beguiling, intelligent writing.… (more)
LibraryThing member sushitori
Captivating story about a Sri Lankan boy who gets shipped off to England to live with his mother. The Cat's Table is the lowest table on the social order of an ocean liner - filled by the most unimportant passengers. Michael and his 2 friends not only have lots on adventures onboard and but they also get caught up in the intrigue of the passengers, many of whom aren't who they seem to be. Jumping back and forth in time, the adult Michael describes how the young boys' lives intertwine over the years, wrapping things up for the characters by explaining how their lives turned out. Ondaatje does a good job of by weaving lives together by making his characters interesting and mysterious.… (more)
LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Three 11-year-old boys meet up on a ship from Sri Lanka to England; each will be met by relatives on arrival, but on ship they are pretty much on their own with only the most cursory guardians looking after them. Michael (the narrator), Cassius, and Rhamadhin spend their days exploring the ship, with particular attention to areas they are not allowed to be in. At dinner, they are seated at “the cat’s table,” far away from the prestigious Captain’s Table. Their dining companions are single adult travelers, each with their own story (which the boys only partially understand).

Michael relates their three weeks on board, and occasionally the story shifts into the future where we see the characters as adults. This, in turn, informs our interpretation of the sea voyage. There are some touching moments, and some difficult ones too. And of course children are not always the most reliable narrators. But when Michael finally disembarks in England, you know some of what lies ahead for him, both good and bad.

I don’t know how I overlooked this book when it was published, but I loved it, devouring it in just a few days. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member janeajones
The narrator (named Michael) of Ondaatje's The Cat's Table tells the tale of his 3 week journey by ship from Sri Lanka to England, when he was eleven, to be reunited with his mother. On the ship he becomes friends with 2 other boys near his age as well as a motley crew of adults who are also seated for meals at the "Cat's Table" -- the table farthest away from the Captain's Table in the ship. The 3 boys have the run of the ship and explore all its nooks and crannies as well as the nooks and crannies of their adult acquaintances. The voyage proves to be the defining period in Michael's life -- all his later experiences and memories radiate outward from it. I found the narrator's voice wonderfully authentic and was captured and drawn into his experiences.… (more)
LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
This was beautifully written and characterized. If I was reluctant to give it five stars, well, I've had a run of special books lately; I read this on the heels of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, and in comparison this didn't move or amaze me as much or make me think, "yes, I will reread this." On the other hand, it did make me think, "I'd definitely try more of this author." (Although I've read this novel is atypical for the author in several respects--more accessible, less experimental in style.)

It's a fairly short, fast read. It's written as if it was a memoir of Michael, looking back to when he was eleven-years-old traveling alone from his birthplace of Ceylon to his new home in England. The time embraced is longer than that, as we get glimpses of the island home he's leaving, and times since, for the voyage reverberates strongly in his life afterwards. But the focus is on the small "city" or "castle" of the ship S.S. Oronsay during a three-week voyage in 1954 through the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Its spaces and decks are described with enough detail to bring it vividly to mind. In its way it's as impressive a work of world-building as a work of fantasy or science fiction. The cast of characters is vividly presented too--particularly the members of the "Cat's Table." The Cat's Table is the opposite of the Captain's Table. It's as far away as possible from that place of honor, in the most undesirable spot, and peopled with the least socially distinguished of the liner's passengers. But quite a few of those people become important both to the young Michael (not lost on me he shares a name with the author) and to the reader. They're more than they appear at first, several having secrets of their own. There's the other two young boys his own age, Ramadhin and Cassius, the "spinster" Miss Lasquetti, the botanist Larry Daniels with his garden of poisonous plants in the ship's hold, Mr Nevil, who dismantles ships for a living, and the mysterious pianist Mazappa. There are some elements of the plot that stretch credulity more than a bit, but mostly this is a sweet, though not too sweet, tale of childhood, when you believed anything could happen, and thought it had. It was a pleasure to read.
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LibraryThing member Mercury57
nitially The Cat’s Table struck me as a rather bland story populated with a host of rather improbable characters and told in a very episodic manner. As it developed, the book took on the characteristics of a Bildungsroman in which a physical journey to a new life (in this case an ocean voyage) acted as an extended metaphor for the passage from childhood to the beginnings of adolescence. And then approximately half way through, it underwent a completely unexpected change of approach and became far more reflective and enigmatic.

At the start of the novel we meet eleven-year-old Michael who is put on a ship in Colombo to travel to England where he is to be re-united with the mother he last saw four years earlier. During the three-week voyage on the cruise ship ‘Oransay’, he makes friends with two boys — Cassius and Ramadhin — who are similarly travelling to new boarding schools in England. Wary of each other at first, the boys find common ground in their insatiable curiosity about the activities of the Oransay and their fellow passengers.

And they do have some extraordinary assortment of travelling companions. Ondatjee populates his novel with amongst others, a Ceylonese circus troupe, a reclusive multi millionaire who lies in his stateroom dying from rabies (the boys believe his illness is the result of a curse); a mysterious woman who is prone to throwing novels overboard and a man who tends a secret garden of medicinal and deadly plants deep in the ship’s bowels. For added interest, they discover a prisoner who is taken onto the decks at night in shackles.

Most of the first half of the book is taken up with the boy’s escapades as they explore, snoop and eavesdrop. ”We were learning about adults simply by being in their midst, ” says Michael the narrator. But misunderstand much of what they see and fail to comprehend some of the signals and it’s left to the adult reader to fill in the gaps.

Around about page 180, this episodic, fragmentary narrative changes direction as the narrator (the adult Michael) leaps forwards many years to relate what happened to the boys once in England. Even then, this is not a linear story as Michael flips from an episode on the boat to a moment in his later life when he was able to understand the significance of that episode more clearly. He reflects also on some of the people he encountered on the ship and how later life revealed what was hidden from him during the voyage. Even then, the novel ends with many questions unanswered. Was the mysterious novel reader, really an undercover intelligence agent? Did the prisoner really escape? What is the nature of the relationship between Michael and his cousin Edith who was also travelling on the boat.? The answers are never revealed. Ondatjee simply suggests and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions. I’m still puzzling about one of the very last pieces of dialogue in which, having met up with Edith after decades of silence, she tells him. ‘You cannot love me into safety.’

There is no big drama or turning point in this novel. Its impact comes from the lyrical quality of Ondatjee’s writing and the enigma which which he ends. It’s not as redolent with atmosphere or meaning as his Booker Prize winning novel The English Patient but its more quiet style nevertheless makes a lasting impression.
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LibraryThing member TomKitten
"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 the familiar rut they have made for themselves." p. 75, Michael Ondaatje, The Cat's Table

On board a ship, the Cat's Table, we are told, is at the opposite end of the social scale from the Captain's table, though such an exalted name would seem to suggest otherwise, at least in this humble feline's opinion. Michael, an eleven year old boy, is assigned a place at the cat's table when he journeys from his native Ceylon to begin school in England, some time in the early 1950's. As the above quote makes clear, he soon realizes that, despite it's lowly status, the Cat's table is where all the really fun people are dine every night with him. He becomes friends with two other boys, roughly his own age, and the three of them vow to do one forbidden thing every day for the entire six weeks it takes to reach England. Innocent pranks often lead to disastrous consequences and, by the end of the novel, we know that Michael's life has been permanently altered by the people he's come to know and by the events that have taken place on board the Oronsay.

I love Michael Ondaatje's writing. I always begin his books knowing I'm in good, trustworthy, experienced hands, though I often have no idea where he'll be taking me. But, to quote Leonard Woolf, it's the journey not the arrival that matters, and never more so than in this superb coming of age story that has the ring of truth filtered through fiction. This will surely lead my best of the year for 2012.
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LibraryThing member Litfan
It's difficult to write this review; in some places this novel is brilliant and in others, plodding. The novel starts out strong as the narrator, a young boy, boards the Oronsay from Ceylon to England. He is traveling alone, and his traveling companions become his dinner mates at the cat's table (the table farthest from the Captain's). The narrator is an inquisitive boy, and through his eyes we witness the happenings on the ship-- some everyday and mundane, and others intriguing. There is a prisoner aboard the ship, and this instantly captures the attention of Michael, the narrator, and his two friends. Michael's powers of observation are fairly astute, and the writing is powerful and sharp. The early part of the book reminded me of Life of Pi and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and if I were reviewing this first part alone, this would have been a five star review without question.

The ship is a microcosm of society, and Michael's understanding of the divide between classes, and the relationship between children and adults, is cemented on this journey. His learning about the workings of the world in this shipboard snapshot of the larger world are compelling and endearing, and the author deftly captures his changing views as he grows up aboard the ship.

In the later part of the book, however, the tone seems to change-- it becomes darker, and this wasn't the trouble so much as the sudden feeling of being more distant from Michael and the other characters. We move between Michael's present adult life, and his time as a boy on the ship. More characters become involved in the story, but we never really get to know any of them enough to feel a connection. This makes it difficult to stay invested in the story. The mystery surrounding the prisoner does heat up, lending some interest. But unfortunately, the plot toward the end of the book seems to just skim the surface. I had hoped for it to go deeper and was disappointed that it didn't.

It's a worthwhile read by an obviously talented writer, but based on the first part of the book I had hoped for a much stronger finish.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
In 1954, our narrator Michael, is sent alone by ship from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to London where his mother has lived for the last three or four years of his young life. Although he is only 11, he is virtually unsupervised on this voyage, and determined to make the most of it. He is aided and abetted by two contemporary companions, Ramadhin and Cassius, the latter of whom he knew slightly at school; the three of them vow not to let a day of the three week passage go by without doing something forbidden. In the dining room, the boys are seated at "the Cat's Table", with several "insignificant" adults who will never be invited to dine with the Captain, unlike the family friend traveling in first class who has promised to "keep an eye on Michael". Despite that assurance, the boys are often left to their own devices, although not completely without adult companionship. Their exploits range from innocuous and mischievous to stupid and life-threatening. Most of the adults they associate with are up to something as well, or at least so it seems to the imaginative boys, who see and hear much that they do not fully understand. To the reader, however, it is clear that not all of the grown-up undertakings are good and legal. As we travel through those 21 days with Michael, we also get glimpses into the future, as he looks back on the adventure years later, interpreting parts of it in light of new information and wider experience. The pacing is gentle (other reviewers call it "slow" or even "plodding"), the writing is fine; there is very little plot, but many little stories. I found it a moving read.… (more)
LibraryThing member Katong
Zipped through this. I'm just a complete sucker for Ondaatje's writing on the Ceylon of his past (Running in the Family) and his assured way with tropical imagery (the Cinnamon Peeler). Cat's Table delivered this and more, sailing upon the surface of a deep ocean of memory, friendship and family and relationships past. I couldn't help comparing it to Barnes' Sense of an Ending, also a novel of memory and time passed, but which seemed so mechanistic in comparison.… (more)
LibraryThing member bookczuk
Kids have access to places that adults don't. They can roam about unbidden, explore, and create new worlds, whether they're in a house, hotel, forest, or ship. That's the situation Michael finds himself in when he is sent by boat from Sri Lanka to England, to join his mother. Much of the book is set in this microcosm of reality that was the 21 day voyage. The book takes it's title from the table the children (and some outcast adults) eat at during meals -- the Cat's table, which is just about as far away from the captain's table as possible.

There is mystery and adventure aboard the ship: a hidden garden, a prisoner, a dying man, a scholar, and even some circus performers. Indeed, it was that prisoner, brought shackled to the decks at night for exercise, and the mystery surrounding him, that carried through into the last part of the book, where the children are now adults.

The glimpses of childhood in the 1950's, so different from my own experience in the same time, was fascinating. But I could identify with the freedom children had then, to explore and conquer our neighborhood, be it a ship or 7 blocks in suburbia. That the main character is named Michael, and grows up to be a writer, made me wonder if there was a glimmer of true experience in the book. Either way, the story was beautifully told, keeping the revelation of the prisoner's truth to the very end.
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LibraryThing member Margitte123
Michael was eleven years old that night when, green as he could be about the world , he climbed aboard the first and only ship of his life, the Oronsay, sailing for England from Colombo.

Unbeknownst to him, the twenty-one days at sea would become twenty-one years of schooling, molding him into the adult he would one day be, when he joined the cat's table, the least important place to eat on the ship.

The lessons he picked up from the adult company filled up several pages of his old school exercise books. He still had time to make those notes, amid the adventures in which he and his friends, Ramadhin and Cassius, engaged in on the ship. They witnessed an adult world filled with thieves, adulterers, gamblers, teachers, authority, natural healers, dreamers and schemers. Oh yes, and a shackled, dangerous prisoner. Each one of them becomes important in their lives through either their words or conduct. The ship had lots to offer for three young boys to keep them occupied. So many people, so many stories, so many intrigue. And then there was the ports of call...

Miss Perinetta Lasqueti was one of the guests around the Cat's Table who would become one of the biggest influences in their lives. Their first impression of her manner was that of being like faded wallpaper, but the more they found out about her, the more convinced they became that 'she was more like a box of small foxes at a country fair'. She would become one of the biggest surprises on their life's journey.

Mr. Mazappa - the boisterous, loud pianist would change their newly acquired perspective on old paintings with his approach to the angelic Madonnas in them, saying: "‘The trouble with all those Madonnas is that there is a child that needs to be fed and the mothers are putting forth breasts that look like panino-shaped bladders. No wonder the babies look like disgruntled adults."(p.213 - kindle edition)

Mr. Larry Daniels, the botanist, would teach them much more about his plants than they would ever need to know in their lifetimes.

Mr. Fonseka, the teacher, had a "serenity that came with the choice of the life he wanted to live. And this serenity and certainty I have seen only among those who have the armour of books close by."

I wanted to read this book for such a long time now. There was just something about it that told me it would roll me over and tie me down in its prose. It did. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered its popularity on Goodreads. Some books just put themselves where it can be read because it is really that good. It is multifaceted. It is thought-provoking. It is excellent. It is one of those books you cannot walk away from easily. It has all the elements to promise that it will become a classic in time. I want to reread it. I just have to. Period.
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LibraryThing member St.CroixSue
Mesmerizing 'coming of age' fiction written by Ondaatje, the author of 'The English Patient.' The narrator recounts a privotal journey as an 11 year old, and shifts into the present as an adult in an attempt to come to terms with the events on the ship. SRH
LibraryThing member Romonko
Michael Ondaatje is a wonderful writer. He has written some wonderful classics such as The English Patient and Anil's Ghost. This book too was nominated for a 2011 Giller Prize. I expected the book to be lyrically written with wonderfully drawn characters, and it did not disappoint. This is a coming of age novel and the story is of life aboard a ship for an eleven year old boy who is going from Sri Lanka to England to be with his mother. The story is set in the 1950's, but Mr. Ondaatje takes back and forth from that time to the present day, when the boy is now a man. At first I thought the book was autobioghraphical, but Mr. Ondaatje said that it is not and is a work of fiction, but his writing makes it so realistic, and the young boy's name is Michael too. Strange things happen on this voyage of three weeks, things that will forever change and shape young Michael and his two young friends who are also on this voyage. We meet some truly wonderful characters through the eyes of these three boys. And we also get to see how these characters and the happenings on this ship forever changed the lives of the three young protaganists.… (more)
LibraryThing member gbower
This is my first experience with Ondaatje's writing but certainly will not be my last. By chance I chose to bring this book as reading material on a recent cruise and the descriptions of a boys sea journey were enhanced for me by my being on board a seagoing passenger vessel. Although he claimed the story was not an autobiography Ondaatje certainly made the reader feel it was real and each character came to life on the pages. I found the book beautifully written and .look forward to reading more of his work.… (more)
LibraryThing member Warriapendibookclub
“The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje
Lynn chose this book because she couldn’t find a good biography. She searched all through “The Book Depository” and finally found this book. It was slow to start but she loved it. Couldn’t read it all at once, needed to absorb it as she went along. Beautiful writing, very elegant. Underlying uplifting feeling, sad in parts but a great adventure for the boys.
Loved the prose, couldn’t pigeonhole the plot. It was probably a whimsical memoir. I wanted to know more about the characters towards the end.
Beautiful writing. Impressions and memories well done. Poignant at times.
Enjoyed it, clever writing and I admire that.
I read it quickly and easily. It was not what I thought it would be from this author.. I sometimes felt outside the story. Gentle adventure.
Enjoyed it but it was not memorable.
Got really involved and loved the freedom of the eleven year old boys and their imaginations.
The book wasn't quite up to my expectations. I thought it was a bit of a
swiz to call it a novel when it was more of a memoir. I liked the first
half, but then it seemed to fizzle out a bit in the third quarter:
didn't seem to be going anywhere. No plot or storyline as in a real
novel. He failed to take me into his world. Well written, and interesting characters however.
It was a good reminiscence of ship travel which is a world of it’s own. It titillated but didn’t have a conclusion.
I really enjoyed it, a special treat so much better than “The English Patient”.Class differences very well drawn. The transition from Ceylon to England was very good. Looking through the eyes of a child and then an adult.
I did similar sea trips from U.K. to S. Africa and return a few times. The first time I was 10 and we got up to much the same sort of thing but not so extreme. As I got older it all changed of course. I loved the idea of the garden and the dog that got “lost”. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

8.5, 8.5, 8, 8, 7, 7, 7, 9, 9, 8.5, 9. 8.136
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LibraryThing member whitreidtan
I wasn't sure how much I'd like this book since Ondaatje's The English Patient made me want to poke myself in the eye with a sharp and pointy stick. Either my tastes have changed, I've matured, or this is a very different book because I found myself completely swept up in the language, the unconventional timing and narrative, and the curious adventures of young boys traveling for an extended amount of time on a large ship bound for England from Ceylon.

Narrated by the adult Michael, who traveled alone to England to rejoin his mother at the age of eleven years old, this novel is an unusual combination of thoughtful character sketch and mischievious exploration. Michael quickly teams up with two other boys his age who are also relegated to the "cat's table," the table farthest from the captain's table and the three boys scamper around the ship having capers, learning about their fellow passengers, and just generally being unsupervised boys. The short vignette-like chapters also focus occasionally on the other, adult members of the cat's table and the things that the boys learn about and from them.

There's a dreamlike, muted feel to the shipboard life the boys lead and Ondaatje captures their innocence and curiousity beautifully. The journey narrative is occasionally broken with chapters that give small glimpses into life post-journey for Michael, Cassius, and Ramadhin and which offer brief insights into the future of who these boys became and how this seemingly transitory, in several senses, journey undeniably and permanently shaped each of their adult selves. The writing is rich and meditative and the novel is well worth the read.
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LibraryThing member meredk
I enjoyed this book, both for the writing and the fascinating characters. It's not perfect - I'm not sure how well the meditations on the main character's life as an adult work, for example. But the scenes on the ship are strange and beautiful, almost like magical realism at times.
LibraryThing member Laura400
A beautiful and captivating book.

The setting is evocatively described, almost painted for the reader. The characters are delicately drawn, complex and memorable, and Ondaatje allows them their continuing mysteries. The plot moves like a sea journey, at first orienting itself with a thorough look around, and then steaming along speedily until the end arrives far too quickly. Ondaatje is at the top of his form here, and the book was an absolute pleasure. Wonderful.… (more)


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