Michael Ondaatje is an amazing writer, but he is quite unique in his style, and is perhaps not for everybody. Anyone who has read his prize winning novel The English Patient, or In The Skin Of A Lion, both over twenty years old now, will probably know what I mean. Still, most would agree he has a beautiful way with words that is hard to ignore, an eloquence which makes you feel like you’re gliding through his stories on a cloud, pulled along completely out of control but with a gentleness too. So when I approached his latest novel, I wondered if this element would be there still, all these years later?
The Cat’s Table is an odd story, in that while it is fictional, it does have elements of memoir and biography (in Ondaatje’s own words). The main character indeed shares his name, and this fictional Michael travels to England from Colombo in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in the mid 1950s as an 11 year old boy, at the same age that the author himself did (at least, according to the Wikipedia page on him, so it must be true (but seriously, it probably is true)). As the narrator flitters between telling the story of this childhood voyage (which goes for 3 weeks on board a ship called the Oronsay, which is apparently fictional) and his life as an older man, showing what became of him and the other characters who were on board, we can’t help but feel convinced there is more biography in here than Ondaatje let’s on, and many other critics seem to wonder this as well.
The story itself definitely has something magical about it. The Cat’s Table is the table furthest away from The Captain’s Table on board the ship, suggesting it is the table with the least important or least powerful people socially speaking, and it is here that the main character Michael finds himself eating each day, alongside two other boys, gentle but physically unwell Ramadhin, and the confident and somewhat mysterious Cassius. Michael befriends these two, and they set off on all sorts of adventures, exploring the ship as well as the few ports that the ship stops at, and meeting a whole host of other intriguing characters. But it is always the characters seated around The Cat’s Table who draw Michael’s attention the most. Slowly, despite his young age, he realises that the most interesting people aren’t those with power and social importance, but those without – the ones who have had to make their own way, and have had to fight to live their lives the way they want to live them, and have succeeded in doing so. When we see Michael as an adult, we see that these people, despite knowing many of them only for 3 weeks, have had a profound and lasting effect on him.
The writing style is a bit different to those earlier two books I’ve already mentioned. I haven’t read Anil’s Ghost (2000) or Divisadero (2007) and so cannot really comment on whether or not his style has progressively changed or if it differs specifically for this novel, but it is still very Ondaatje, if perhaps not as dreamy and whispy as I was at first expecting. What is very similar is the power of his language – it is deeply evocative of all the senses, most especially the sights, and it was so easy to imagine this great big heaving ship on which Michael and his companions continuously caused mischief. The characters are not particularly described by their looks, but their personalities and mannerisms paint a much stronger picture of who they are and how they might appear anyway, and we are left with a cast who will stay with us long after we have put the book down.
Personally, I think The Cat’s Table is a great book because while it should definitely appeal to people already fans of Ondaatje, I think it is a more approachable novel than some of his books for those who have not yet read him, or who have but perhaps struggled with his unusual style and pacing of story (I did feel like this had a much faster pace too). In other words, this new (ish) novel has done something rare in being able to appeal to a whole new group of potential readers without alienating the original readers or selling out, and that is something to be commended as far as I’m concerned!
I gave this book four stars on Goodreads, and really if they would let me I would have given it four and a half! Definitely worth a read!
Have you read this novel, and if so, what were your thoughts? If not, have you read any books by Michael Ondaatje, and do you think you would try this one?