Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Review: The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

I wasn't sure how much I'd like this book since Ondaatje's The English Patient made me want to poke myself in the eye with a sharp and pointy stick. Either my tastes have changed, I've matured, or this is a very different book because I found myself completely swept up in the language, the unconventional timing and narrative, and the curious adventures of young boys traveling for an extended amount of time on a large ship bound for England from Ceylon.

Narrated by the adult Michael, who traveled alone to England to rejoin his mother at the age of eleven years old, this novel is an unusual combination of thoughtful character sketch and mischievious exploration. Michael quickly teams up with two other boys his age who are also relegated to the "cat's table," the table farthest from the captain's table and the three boys scamper around the ship having capers, learning about their fellow passengers, and just generally being unsupervised boys. The short vignette-like chapters also focus occasionally on the other, adult members of the cat's table and the things that the boys learn about and from them.

There's a dreamlike, muted feel to the shipboard life the boys lead and Ondaatje captures their innocence and curiousity beautifully. The journey narrative is occasionally broken with chapters that give small glimpses into life post-journey for Michael, Cassius, and Ramadhin and which offer brief insights into the future of who these boys became and how this seemingly transitory, in several senses, journey undeniably and permanently shaped each of their adult selves. The writing is rich and meditative and the novel is well worth the read.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me this book to review.

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