So vivid are the characters and their stories in The Cat’s Table that you’ll think this is Michael Ondaatje’s autobiography.
It is all made up, however.
EXTRAORDINARY! ENTHRALLING! WONDROUS! shout the one-word review quotes on the front cover, and they are all correct; this is indeed a spectacular work of fiction that I implore you to read.
I’d never even picked up a book by Michael Ondaatje before, let alone read one. It is thanks to the cover that I knew he was famous for writing The English Patient (I’ve seen the movie, of course, but never read the book).
The Guardian said:
The Cat’s Table seems at first as if it might be a picaresque novel set in a constricted space, a favourite choice of many writers since Sebastian Brant’s 1494 Ship of Fools. Ondaatje gives us the cat’s table, the opposite of the captain’s table, and the most undesirable dining assignment aboard the cruise ship Oronsay. This allows Ondaatje to lay out an extraordinary assortment of characters like cards on a table, shuffle and redeal them. It gives the passengers a sense of invisibility and the freedom to behave as they wish. As we read into The Cat’s Table the story becomes more complex, more deadly, with an increasing sense of lives twisted awry, of misplaced devotion.
Our narrator is “Mynah” (a nickname for Michael) and he is joined by two other young boys as they travel from Colombo to England on a cruise ship, full of intriguing characters and mischief.
The story jumps back and forth in time, revealing both the past and futures of the characters, which has the effect of intertwining their stories even more and showing the significance of the cruise experience in their lives. In essence, the book is about memory and how some things stay with you forever.
There is an unexpected melancholy; of love lost and grief and missed opportunities.