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.