Review: The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

3 of 5 stars
Published August 2011

In a story that feels very much like it could be the author’s memoir, though isn’t, three boys around the ages of 11-12 are traveling from Sri Lanka to England on a passenger ship on their own. The narrator, Michael, is joining his mother. The “cat’s table” is a table in the ship dining room that’s near the back and the people assigned are the odds and ends of the passengers but from that vantage point, they can see everything going on in the dining room. Michael and his two friends have the run of the ship, get into scrapes and meet all kinds of interesting people. This story meanders back and forth between the boys’ adventures and the stories of many of the people they encounter on board.

There’s more as well, from Michael as an adult narrating things that happened to him growing up. It seems like the voyage was the first step into puberty on the road to adulthood for all of the boys and some of the events have a definite effect on them. There’s a bit of a mystery dealing with the fate of a prisoner being transported and another passenger. The prisoner is only seen late at night on deck when he is brought up for some air and exercise. Who is he? What has he done? Not all of the characters are what they appear to be.

The story is mainly about the characters, a man looking back on a time and people that had a large influence on his life. The narrative meanders around the characters and events like curling ribbons. The prose is beautiful and is a pleasure to read. There’s no big event, no mystery to solve, it’s not plot driven but it’s a story of people.


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