The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

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My first idea was to select the most lovely passage in Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The Cat’s Table, and copy it here to convey the beauty of Ondaatje’s writing. But, then I realized I would have to just copy the entire book. Every sentence is like a bright little gem.

Here’s a description, this one of a storm, that sent a shiver up my spine in recognition at not only the beautiful writing, but the way Ondaatje evokes a very particular feeling that accompanies a powerful storm.

 “There are times when a storm invades the landscape of the Canadian Shield, where I live during the summers, and I wake up believing I am in mid-air, at the height of the tall pines above the river, watching the approaching lightning, and hearing behind it the arrival of its thunder. It is only from such a height that you see the great choreography and danger of storms. In the house, a few bodies are asleep, and near them the hound, her ears tormented, shaking, as if her heart is about to collapse or be flung out.”

I can just picture the dog, tense and agitated, can’t you? 

The Cat’s Table is a coming-of-age story that takes place over three weeks in 1954 as a giant ocean liner travels from Ceylon to England. The ship is a contained world that serves as a metaphor for Michael’s (the 11-year-old narrator) own journey, but it is so much more than that. I love the way Ondaatje captures the freedom of being between two words – neither here nor there – so that the rules seem not to exist. The title of the novel refers to the Cat’s Table – the opposite of the Captain’s Table, where Michael, two other boys heading to boarding schools in England, and a variety of other complex and interesting passengers, have their dinner.

It’s a psychological, rather than plot-driven, novel which is what I loved about it – Ondaatjie makes such astute observations about people, their motives and desires. And because everyone is sharing such close quarters, all of their eccentricities are magnified.

Near the end of the book, Michael says: “We slipped into England in the dark.” I stopped reading there – until the next day – not wanting the voyage to end.

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