The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. Reviewed by John Purcell

by |August 11, 2011

Difficult to explain, easy to read, The Cat’s Table is part memoir, part fiction. A delicious and sometimes intoxicating blend of reminiscence and storytelling. Ondaatje conjures up the exotic and the bizarre, the erotic and the romantic without obvious effort.

Though published as fiction and avowed to be such by the author, on reading The Cat’s Table we immediately recognise parallels with Ondaatje’s own life. In fact, Ondaatje seems intent on reinforcing this by naming the protagonist Michael, by alluding to his later career as a novelist, by revisiting and utilising episodes from his own life.

The author/narrator seems to be entranced by, and then suspicious of, his own memories. He pulls them close and then pushes them rudely away. He wants his reader to believe and disbelieve at the same time. The past is not real. It is past. It has no witness but I and I cannot be trusted. This, it must be said, creates a peculiar tension which urges the reader to continue on.

The book opens with Michael, an unaccompanied eleven year old boy, boarding an ocean liner in Ceylon bound for England where his mother awaits. At dinner he discovers he has been placed at what becomes to be known as The Cat’s Table – the table furthest from the captain’s table. And it is here he meets the off-cuts of the cruise, a table of eccentric passengers who become a surrogate family to the boy.

I found The Cat’s Table most engaging when I was seeing the cruise from the point of view of the eleven year old, Michael.  I  was then able to indulge the more fantastic elements of the story. I became involved in the drama and the intrigue. The boy’s imagination, his natural tendency towards the unlikely conclusion, enriched my experience and kept me entertained. I didn’t think the episodes examining the narrator’s adult life were as successful. Not that they weren’t interesting, but I found myself missing the wonder and the innocence of the child’s view of the world.

You know that film you watch on a Sunday afternoon just because it’s on television and you can’t be bothered doing anything else? And even though you have never heard of the film and don’t recognise the actors you find yourself being sucked in? Well, that’s how it was with me and The Cat’s Table. I picked it up because I… err… liked the cover… and soon found myself one hundred pages in. I finished in three sittings. It isn’t the greatest thing I’ve ever read but I recommend it to anyone wishing to while away a quiet Sunday afternoon.

Here is what the publisher has to say…

In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy boards a huge liner bound for England – a ‘castle that was to cross the sea’. At mealtimes, he is placed at the lowly ‘Cat’s Table’ with an eccentric group of grown-ups 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 become involved in the worlds and stories of the adults around them, tumbling from one adventure and delicious discovery to another, ‘bursting all over the place like freed mercury’. And at night, the boys spy on a shackled prisoner – his crime and fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever.

As the narrative moves from the decks and holds of the ship and the boy’s adult years, it tells a spellbinding story about the difference between the magical openness of childhood and the burdens of earned understanding – about a life-long journey that began unexpectedly with a spectacular sea voyage, when all on board were ‘free of the realities of the earth’.

With the ocean liner a brilliant microcosm for the floating dream of childhood, The Cat’s Table is a vivid, poignant and thrilling book, full of Ondaatje’s trademark set-pieces and breathtaking images: a story told with a child’s sense of wonder by a novelist at the very height of his powers.

About the Author

Michael Ondaatje
was born in Sri Lanka in 1943. In the 1950s he moved to England, and went to school in south London. In 1962 he emigrated to Canada, where he has lived ever since. His books include his memoir, Running in the Family, numerous collections of poetry, and five novels – including The English Patient which won the 1992 Booker Prize. His latest novel is The Cat’s Table, published by Cape in hardcover in September 2011.

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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