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.