I haven't read anything by Michael Ondaatje in a long time, not since probably 1993 or 1994, when I first read The English Patient, his Booker Prize winner about people caught up in the maelstrom of World War 2. The Cat's Table examines a more intimate corner of the post-war world, one of migrations and movements, of the after-lives of that world. Eleven year old Michael is on board the Oronsay, a ship traveling from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to England, where Michael will join his mother and start a new life. He will be on the ship for three weeks. Joining him is an array of personages; he is nominally looked after by one Flavia Prins, a first-class passenger who rarely interacts with her charge. He meets two boys around his age, Ramadhin and Cassius. Ramadhin is a delicate boy with a heart condition who dies young; Cassius is a boisterous trouble-maker like Michael, and together the three boys run around, have adventures and get involved in the various goings-on aboard ship.
The narrative travels back and forth through time and the shipboard segments have a picaresque quality. We see the passengers and their activities through a child's eyes and so we don't always get a full picture of what's going on. There's a single woman named Miss Lasqueti who reads romance novels and seems to be transporting pigeons, a silent red-scarfed tailor, Michael's glamorous older cousin Emily and an enigmatic prisoner only seen at night. These characters and others are connected in a shadowy drama that emerges slowly, both for Michael and for the reader. In the meantime Ondaatje treats the reader to the details of shipboard life- the food, the boys' activities, their wanderings and their various escapades.
The "cat's table" is set up as the opposite of the Captain's Table, where the rich and powerful sit. The cat's table is for the marginalized, the least-desirable passengers:
In any case, it seemed to us that nearly all at our table...might have an interesting reason for their journey, even if it was unspoken or, so far, undiscovered. In spite of this, our table's status on the Oronsay continued to be minimal, while those at the Captain's Table were constantly toasting one another's significance. 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.Ondaatje's style of writing is understated and sort of delicate. At the Boston Book Festival Ondaatje said he edits his work with a "microscopic" attention to nuance and he does write with the precision of poet (which he is). There is a lot of emotional content to the book. It's a story about not just what happens aboard ship but aboutt the lifetime it takes Michael to process everything that's happened and how others, especially Emily, Cassius and Ramadhin, have been affected by their time on the Oronsay. Not to mention himself.
So I wouldn't describe The Cat's Table as a page-turner. It was a slow read for me, in part because I always struggle through picaresques and in part because that carefully-wrought writing just demands a slow reader. I admired this book; I didn't love it, but I might love it more on a second reading. I would recommend it for readers seeking an intensely emotional, finely crafted book over which to linger. I enjoyed it and I'm glad I read it, but I'll let you decide for yourself if it sounds like the right book for you.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.