Synopses & Reviews
In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy in Colombo boards a ship bound for England. At mealtimes he is seated at the cat's table — as far from the Captain's Table as can be — with a ragtag group of insignificant adults 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 tumble from one adventure to another, bursting all over the place like freed mercury. But there are other diversions as well: one man talks with them about jazz and women, another opens the door to the world of literature. The narrator's elusive, beautiful cousin Emily becomes his confidante, allowing him to see himself with a distant eye for the first time, and to feel the first stirring of desire. Another Cat's Table denizen, the shadowy Miss Lasqueti, is perhaps more than what she seems. And very late every night, the boys spy on a shackled prisoner, his crime and his fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever.
As the narrative moves between the decks and holds of the ship and the boy's adult years, it tells a spellbinding story — by turns poignant and electrifying — about the magical, often forbidden, discoveries of childhood and a lifelong journey that begins unexpectedly with a spectacular sea voyage.
“The Cat’s Table is just as skillfully wrought as Ondaatje’s magnum opus The English Patient, but its picaresque childhood adventure gives it a special power and intimacy....He 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.” Wall Street Journal
“A joy and a lark to read....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....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.” Boston Globe
“The Cat’s Table is an exquisite example of the richness that can flourish in the gaps between fact and fiction....Ondaatje has an eerily precise grasp of the immediacy of a child’s world view, and an extraordinary sense of individual destiny....It is an adventure story, it is a meditation on power, memory, art, childhood, love and loss. It displays a technique so formidable as to seem almost playful. It is one of those rare books that one could reread an infinite number of times, and always find something new within its pages.” Evening Standard (UK)
“This book is wonderful, offering all the best pleasures of Ondaatje’s writing: his musical prose, up-tempo; his ear for absurd, almost surreal dialogue, which had me laughing out loud in public as I read; his admiration for craftsmanship and specialized language in the sciences and the trades; and his sumptuous evocations of sensual delight....In many ways, this book is Ondaatje’s most intimate yet.” Globe and Mail (Canada)
“A treasure chest of escapades from a pitch-perfect writer, an immaculate observer of the dance of humans, giving us an intoxicating mix of tenderly rendered boy’s eye perspective and the musings of the older narrator looking back on this intensely formative voyage....It is a classic, perfect premise for a novel packed with possibilities. Put it in the hands of one of the most subtle and surprising masters of world writing, Michael Ondaatje, and unalloyed joy lies latent in every sentence and sensuous quirk of the narrative. This is simply blissful storytelling....Think the seafaring Joseph Conrad, with an invigorating infusion of Treasure Island, a touch of Mark Twain.” The Scotsman (UK)
“Ondaatje’s best novel since his Booker Prize-winning The English Patient....[An] air of the meta adds a gorgeous, modern twist to the timeless story of boys having an awfully big adventure....As always, Ondaatje’s prose is lyrical, but here it is tempered; the result is clean and full of grace.” Publishers Weekly (starred)
“A graceful, closely observed novel that blends coming-of-age tropes with a Conradian sea voyage....Beautifully detailed, without a false note: 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....Elegiac, mature, and nostalgic — a fine evocation of childhood, and of days irretrievably past.” Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Ondaatje is justly recognized as a master of literary craft....The novel tells of a journey from childhood to the adult world, as well as a passage from the homeland to another country, something of a Dantean experience.” Annie Proulx, The Guardian (UK)
“Ondaatje’s wondrous prose feels more alive to the world than ever before....This is a simpler story, more simply told, than Ondaatje has accustomed his readers to....Yet The Cat’s Table is no less thrilling in its attempts to capture beauty in its various and terrifying forms.” Financial Times (UK)
“Richly enjoyable, often very funny, and gleams like a really smart liner on a sunny day....The magic of this fine book is in the strange inventiveness of its episodes. Ondaatje is really the master of incident in the novel, and the enchantments wash over the reader in waves....The beauty of Ondaatje’s writing is in its swift accuracy; it sings with the simple precision of the gaze.” Daily Telegraph (UK)
“The Cat’s Table is Ondaatje’s most accessible, most compelling novel to date. It may also be his finest...Ondaatje’s prose is, as always, stunning....The Cat’s Table is a breathtaking account not only of boyhood, but of its loss. It is a novel filled with utterly unique characters and situations, but universal in its themes, heartbreakingly so, and a journey the reader will never forget.” Vancouver Sun
“An eloquent, elegiac tribute to the game of youth and how it shapes what follows....One of the strengths of the novel is the sheer brilliance of characterization on show. The bit players on board the Oronsay are almost Dickensian in their eccentricity and lovability....In The Cat’s Table, he has not only captured with acute precision the precarious balance of his characters’ existence on the move but also the battle that adults wage for the retention of the awe and wonder they once took for granted in their childhood. Ultimately, Ondaatje has created a beautiful and poetic study hre of what it means to have your very existence metaphorically, as well as literally, all at sea.” Independent on Sunday (UK)
“A novel superbly poised between the magic of innocence and the melancholy of experience.” Economist (UK)
“Is there a novelist who writes more compellingly about tenderness than Ondaatje?....The Cat’s Table is a voyage of discovery for the reader as well as for its narrator. I loved the book, was dazzled by its language, and looked forward to turning each page to learn what would happen next.” Montreal Gazette
About the Author
Michael Ondaatje is the author of five previous novels, a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and several books of poetry. The English Patient
won the Booker Prize; Anil’s Ghost
won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Giller Prize, and the Prix Médicis. Born in Sri Lanka, Michael Ondaatje now lives in Toronto.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of The Cat’s Table, the luminous new novel by Michael Ondaatje, Booker Prize–winning author of The English Patient.
1. The epigraph is taken from the short story “Youth” by Joseph Conrad: “And this is how I see the East.... I see it always from a small boat—not a light, not a stir, not a sound. We conversed in low whispers, as if afraid to wake up the land.... It is all in that moment when I opened my young eyes on it. I came upon it from a tussle with the sea.” How does this set up the major themes of The Cat’s Table
2. How is the voyage itself a metaphor for childhood?
3. Why do you think the opening passages of the book are told in third person?
4. We are 133 pages into the novel before Ondaatje gives us an idea of what year it is. How does he use time—or the sense of timelessness—to propel the story?
5. The anonymity of ocean travel and the sense that board ship we know only what others want us to know about them come into play at several points in the novel. What is Ondaatje saying about identity?
6. For several characters—the three boys and Emily among them—the journey represents a loss of innocence. For whom does it have the greatest impact?
7. Discuss the importance of some of the seemingly minor characters at the table: Mr. Mazappa, Mr. Fonseka, Mr. Nevil. What do they contribute to the story?
8. “What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power,” the narrator realizes (page 75). “Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.” How does this prove true over the course of the novel?
9. How do the narrator’s experiences breaking and entering with the Baron change his way of looking at the world?
10. Discuss the three boys’ experience during the typhoon. How does it affect their friendship and their attitude toward authority figures?
11. How does the death of Sir Hector factor into the larger story?
12. On page 155, the narrator refers to Ramadhin as “the saint of our clandestine family.” What does he mean?
13. When describing the collapse of his marriage, the narrator says, “Massi said that sometimes, when things overwhelmed me, there was a trick or a habit I had: I turned myself into something that did not belong anywhere. I trusted nothing I was told, not even what I witnessed” (page 203). What made him behave this way? How did it affect his marriage?
14. On page 208, the narrator tells us about a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne in which “he spoke of how viewers of his films should not assume they understood everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they; we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves.” Why did Ondaatje give us this warning, so far into the novel? What is he telling us?
15. What was your reaction to the revelations about Miss Lasqueti?
16. How do you think her letter to Emily might have changed the events on board the Oronsay? Why didn’t she send it?
17. Miss Laqueti signs off her letter, “‘Despair young and never look back,’ an Irishman said. And this is what I did” (page 231). What does she mean?
18. Discuss Emily’s relationship with Asuntha. Did she, as the narrator suggests on page 251, see herself in the deaf girl?
19. When Emily says to the narrator, “I don’t think you can love me into safety,” (page 250), to what is she referring? What is the danger, decades after the voyage?
20. The narrator wishes to protect Emily, Cassius has Asuntha, and Ramadhin has Heather Cave. “What happened that the three of us had a desire to protect others seemingly less secure than ourselves?” he asks on page 262. How would you answer that question?