This is a beautifully written book with indelible images that in the end did not fulfill the promise of its opening.
The Cat’s Table is a coming of age novel. In it the narrator, Michael an 11 year old boy tells the story of his solo ship voyage from Ceylon to England in the early 1950s. Michael is seated at the Cat’s table, the table lowest in status and farthest from the captain’s table. He makes two friends, Cassius and Ramadhin, and their ship board adventures make for the most interesting parts of the book. The story is rich with eccentric characters. A musician, Mr. Mazappa, after teaching them obscene lyrics to songs sets them off on their adventures. Mr. Daniels has transformed a lower level of the ship into a botanical garden; a strange Australian girl roller skates the deck of the ship early each morning; a prisoner is kept below deck and only taken out for midnight walks; a thief with Michael’s help invades first class cabins and steals; a group of acrobats and a deaf girl add to the mystery; Miss Lasqueti has a mysterious background and travels with a crate of carrier pigeons, Sir Hector deSilva a wealthy passenger who is quite ill and perhaps has had a spell cast on him.
The author brings each of these characters in and out of the narrative as the voyage slowly takes place and the plot coalesces. Many of the events the boys don’t quite understand at the time but come to understand later in life -“Over the years, confusing fragments, lost corners of stories, have a clearer meaning when seen in a new light, a different place." The first half of this novel which is set on the ship is very strong. There is a great sense of time and place conveyed in the words. The whimsy and wonder that they boys have in their explorations is palpable. As with most of Ondaatje’s writing the metaphors abound, starting with the voyage itself as a symbol of the passage from childhood to adulthood and the Cat’s table as a symbol for the left behind and forgotten. For me, when the story left the voyage and went into future events it lost much of its energy. This is a beautifully written book with images that are indelible, at times I stopped to reread a paragraph so I could savor the scene that was described, and it just seemed to come alive on the page. In the end though I did not think this story fulfilled the promise of the beginning and ended on a weak note.
I read a copy of this book borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia