These pages don’t simply capture viscerally the eleven-year-old’s joy at discovery, or his unspeakable fears, or his first stirrings of desire—although to do that successfully is in itself a rarer achievement than one might wish to believe. They also emanate, like a scent, the melancholy of age, the tender wistfulness with which a man over sixty sees again the vistas of his childhood … Ondaatje evokes, powerfully, the sorrow of growing older: the resignation, and recognition, of all that was not earlier understood. He articulates, too, the rueful amazement at what is past: when he finally finds Emily again, at the end of the novel…between the two of them lies a moment of fullness—a moment of being—reminiscent of Mrs. Dalloway’s at her party, when at last she is surrounded by the dear friends of her youth and finds them so changed.
In The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje seems to lead the reader on a journey through three deeply submerged weeks in his own memory … So convincing is Ondaatje’s evocation of his narrator’s experience that the reader could easily mistake it for the author’s own. But in a note at the end of the book Ondaatje takes pains to establish that The Cat’s Table is ‘fictional,’ though it ‘sometimes uses the coloring and locations of memoir and autobiography.’ This disclaimer will not keep the reader from reflecting that any life so richly recounted belongs more to fiction than fact … Not all the mysteries Ondaatje explores in his account of Mynah’s sea passage — revisited in adulthood from the remove of decades and from another continent — have clear resolutions, nor do they need them. Uncertainty, Ondaatje shows, is the unavoidable human condition, the gel that changes the light on the lens, altering but not spoiling the image.
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 … The constriction of space intensifies a sense of allegory as a frame surrounds a painting. For the excited boys the cleavage between east and west floods their consciousness when the ship passes through the Suez Canal … All that has occurred on board the Oronsay, all that was seen and experienced, is carried ashore by the passengers in memories, damaged psyches, degrees of loss, evanescent joy and reordered lives.
The Cat’s Table prefigures its narrator’s adult life through a series of shipboard adventures and revelations. The table of the title affords him a fine vantage point. He is not one of those select passengers who sit at the Captain’s Table, ‘constantly toasting one another’s significance.’ Instead, he is seated with the ship’s outcasts, all of whom turn out to have wisdom to impart … The Cat’s Table opens in a spirit of exuberant freedom, then constricts a bit as it goes along. At the end of the book, Mr. Ondaatje supplies moments of unexpected and not really necessary denouement. This artificiality serves only to underscore how authentic the novel’s most understated insights and narrative observations have been. Mr. Ondaatje succeeds so well in capturing the anticipation and inquisitiveness of boyhood that the melancholy of adult life seems ordinary by comparison. The past and latter-day sections of the book are slightly out of sync.
It’s a charming mixture of eccentricity, serendipity and impish fun. ‘Twenty-one days is a very brief period in a life,’ the narrator admits, but Ondaatje folds all the boys’ escapades into the human comedy … The tone grows darker, the drama more treacherous. Wisps of rumor that Michael and his friends have breathlessly collected erupt in a climax that outstrips their childish fantasies. How frighteningly the pieces of this puzzle snap into place, and we’re left staring just as dumbstruck as young Michael at a melodramatic tableau … On the powerful waters of Ondaatje’s prose, The Cat’s Table finally arrives at a deeper destination than we could have anticipated when the voyage began.
The metaphoric weight of a ship journey is impossible to avoid — all of these people are caught between worlds, between old lives and an uncertain future. Today's traveler sees a 12-hour plane flight as an annoying interruption, a dead space best handled with iPods, magazines, movies and a nap. But on a journey like this one, a three-week voyage through three oceans (Indian, Mediterranean, Atlantic) and two seas (Red and Arabian), life is still lived and lessons are still learned — especially by our narrator … This sense of dislocation might be the theme that connects the novel's episodes. I say ‘might’ because, along with being a quiet writer, Ondaatje gently pushes his story along, never insisting on a particular conclusion. Instead, he lets us take what we want from the small moments of wonder on the ship and more threatening ones.
If this sounds like a recipe for picaresque adventures, a contemporary Huckleberry Finn or postcolonial Kim, it is, only sobered by a tinge of erotic longing and an adult’s feeling of foreboding for years of loneliness to come … The Cat’s Table is conscientious, character-driven, and psychologically acute—the kind of book once championed by E.?M. Forster and Elizabeth Bowen and today practiced by writers like Claire Messud and Jhumpa Lahiri. It accepts, as all these writers do, the humanistic imperative to know one’s characters as well as possible, to make them both complex and transparent to the reader. In this sense, Ondaatje is not simply demonstrating ambivalence about his own artistic principles; he’s gone and undercut the far more radical and decidedly untransparent poetics of his earlier work.
Early in the novel, the narrator, writing from the perspective of the present day, says that he is trying ‘to imagine who the boy on the ship was.’ The novel then moves seamlessly into a first-person tale from the time of the events themselves, capturing the immediacy of an 11-year-old's reactions to being plunged into an amazing world full of things never before encountered. Along the way, sequel moments and retrospective insights—about early childhood, about schooldays and future romance—are embedded in the narrative, shifting time back and forth artfully and giving a larger frame to events, conveying a sense of the sea journey's role in Michael's larger destiny … [Mr. Ondaatje is] a master at creating characters, whom he chooses to present, memorably, as individuals. This choice is of a piece with the freshness and originality that are the hallmarks of The Cat's Table.
A large part of The Cat's Table's ability to fascinate is grounded in the slowness with which it reveals its actual intentions and true nature, its coyness regarding the rules of the fictional game that the author and reader are playing. This is a cunning move on Ondaatje's part, for by placing the book's readers in this position of deep uncertainty, he builds a peculiar and delicious form of suspense while simultaneously managing to imitate and evoke our recalled experiences of reading books as children … The Cat's Table is an adventure book, then: a book about the adventures of reading, and also the adventures of growing up and growing old. It is also a haunting book about being haunted, about the necessary and necessarily futile quest to understand and come to terms with the remembered experiences that shape our lives and personalities.
Within a few pages of the book’s opening, The Cat’s Table’ has done a miraculous thing — it has ceased to be a book, or even a piece of art. It is merely a story, unfolding before the reader’s eyes, its churning motor a mystery about what it is exactly that happened on this boat … This is a book about how the passage of time and distance makes one choose a narrative to his or her own life. Told in short bursts of exposition so beautiful one actually feels the urge to slow the reading down, the novel shows us how the boy assembles the man.
The adults on board are a colorful — almost mythic — lot, including a botanist transporting psychotropic plants, a suave thief and a worldly lounge pianist, who become guides to the boys in different ways … The author splices fragments of the future into the narrative, tracing the impact of the three shipboard weeks on his characters' future lives. Michael matures into a writer who alights in England for some years before settling in Canada. Is this autobiography? A disclaimer follows the text, which I suspect should largely be believed, but The Cat's Table is likely to be examined in light of the ongoing conversation about the blurring lines between fiction and memoir. Regardless, this strategy allows the author interesting liberties and creates another layer of mystery … Ondaatje's vision, though dark, is unfailingly generous and humane.
The voyage 11-year-old Michael makes from Sri Lanka to London, to reunite with his mother, is filled with small marvels, curious secrets, boyish adventures and fascinatingly eccentric grown-ups. This rite of passage, and its reverberations throughout Michael's life, unspools like a wondrous floating dream in Michael Ondaatje's enthralling and poignant new novel … Sifting through memories from different periods of his life, the adult narrator Michael retrieves both vivid and shadowy, cogent and perplexing scraps of his past. When chapters digress from the voyage, one itches to return to the ripping shipboard yarn, so beautifully evoked from the vantage point of a bright, rambunctious, naive boy. But with the sure hand of the master storyteller, Ondaatje fuses different time tracks to arrive at a one poetic, meaningful destination.
Michael Ondaatje's remarkable novels, among them The English Patient, are not famous for ease. This is perhaps his most accessible. Its first half is mostly chronological. Joyful is the only way to describe the delights and surprises and risks these boys find onboard the Oronsay. Midway, though, the novel begins to flash forward more often, and the mood darkens with hints of something profound and disturbing to come … This story — its boys, its grownups, its wit and drama — will live with you long after you finish it. And your own life may be transformed by new memories of those odd, small moments — visible only to the least powerful — when suddenly everything becomes clear.
The details of the trip and the boat recall an appealing if anarchic 20th-century subgenre, the colonial and post-colonial travelogue (Harold Nicolson’s Journey to Java is one), offering a window into a long-gone mode of semi-civilized transport that was at once comfortable and discomforting … The Cat’s Table, a reference to the dining area for those low-profile passengers who never make it to the captain’s table, is a sensitive boy’s story told by a sensitive, confident storyteller.
It is easy to imagine, in Ondaatje’s hands, being a passenger in the golden age of transoceanic voyaging, amid a sea of cocktail glasses and overflowing ashtrays, if in this case a setting more worthy of John le Carré than Noel Coward. Ondaatje writes with considerable tenderness of children who are all but abandoned, and at his best he lands squarely in Conrad territory, a place that smells of frankincense and in which ‘clotted clouds speckled the sky’ and sandstorms blow out to sea from distant deserts—just the sort of place, in other words, that a reader wants to inhabit.
… Ondaatje’s best novel since his Booker Prize–winning The English Patient … His air of the meta adds a gorgeous, modern twist to the timeless story of boys having an awfully big adventure: young Michael meets two children of a similar age on the Oronsay, Cassius and Ramadhin, and together the threesome gets up to all kinds of mischief on the ship, with, and at the expense of, an eccentric set of passengers. But it is Michael’s older, beguiling cousin, Emily, also onboard, who allows him glimpses of the man he is to become. As always, Ondaatje’s prose is lyrical, but here it is tempered; the result is clean and full of grace.