The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.

One summer I spent some time on Vancouver Island.  I remember sitting on the deck of the place where I was staying and watching the cruise ships passing up and down the Georgia Strait.  They seemed magical, all lit up, self-contained worlds.  Rows and rows of lights gleaming in the dark.

Michael Ondaatje’s new novel is about a journey taken by an eleven year old boy.  Traveling alone on a cruise ship from Colombo, Sri Lanka, to join his mother in England, Michael, nicknamed Mynah,  is seated at the “cat’s table”, as for away from the Captain’s Table as possible, his companions, a group of odd adults and two other boys traveling on their own.  All of these outcasts have interesting lives.  The boys have free run of most of  the ship and spend their time exploring, listening, being rambunctious, determined to push all boundaries.  As an adult, remembering this journey, Michael is filled with longing and loss.

A quiet book that contains several mysteries, it is the characters from The Cat’s Table that I enjoyed the most.  It’s as if Michael was showing me his memories, describing his friends and many of the adults on his journey.  Returning with him to this voyage  I feel a great sadness that these people have drifted apart.  There is a sense of regret.

So began a tradition between us.  That I would at certain moments in my life tell Emily things that I would not tell others.  And later in our lives, much later, she would talk to me about what she was going through.  All through my life, Emily would be distinct from everyone I knew.  From page 112.


I am someone who has a cold heart.  If  I am beside a great grief I throw barriers up so the loss can not go too deep or too far.  There is a wall instantly in place, and it will not fall.  Proust has this line: “We think we no longer love our dead, but…suddenly we catch sight again of an old glove and burst into tears.”  I don’t know what it was.  There was no glove…From page 141.

This is a story of  travel to a new world, a new life, and gives a taste of what that must feel like, particularly to a child displaced by family choice, not the necessity of someone leaving due to political or social upheaval.  Ondaatje has said that the idea for this novel came from personal experience but that he wanted to tell a fictionalized account of something that had been forgotten.  I’m not sure what he means by that, it all feels very real to me.  That is one sign of a master story-teller.

Every immigrant family, it seems, has someone who does not belong in the new country they have come to.  It feels like permanent exile to that one brother or wife who cannot stand a silent fate in Boston or London or Melbourne.  I’ve met many who remain haunted by the persistent ghost of an earlier place…From page 139.

I found this book beautifully and simply written and enjoyed it, as I have so many of Michael Ondaatje’s other novels.  I have also read some of his poetry.

Other reviews:

Buried in Print

Jules’ Book Reviews

Reading Matters

The Mookse and the Gripes


Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, GillerPrize, Historical Fiction, LiteraryFiction, Review

9 responses to “The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

  1. I like the sound of tis novel, the melancholy. I haven’t read anything by Ondaatje since The English Patient but always though I should.

    • Caroline, I think you would enjoy The Cat’s Table. It is quiet and deeply layered. The more I think about it the better I like it.

  2. I just cannot imagine a child being alone on a cruise ship! Guess I better read this book to find out what it might be like!

  3. Thanks for the link, Gavin. I really enjoyed this one. And it secured my theory that I need to read his books in a burst to get fully immersed in them. When I’ve tried to read his works alongside other books, I get too easily distracted…or maybe it’s just that the others don’t hold water in comparison?!

    • I agree, I get distracted by other books! I’ve gotten in the habit of reading two or three books at a time and think I need to re-evaluate.

  4. I really want to read this book. It came up for me at the library, but it is so popular I pushed it back a bit because I am not reading much lately…

  5. Your review convinced me to start reading this book, which had been on my TBR pile. I really enjoyed it too.

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