Book Review – The Cat’s Table

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje (Jonathan Cape) ISBN: 9780224093620

Being invisible because of young age or low status allows a better view of what is going on around you. That is the idea that Ondaatje portrays in The Cat’s Table, a fictional tale with “the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography”.

In 1954, 11-year old Michael travels on an ocean liner from Colombo to London. It is a journey from East to West and from childhood into the world of adults. Largely unsupervised, Michael and two friends find exciting places and interesting people that remain unknown to passengers who populate the Captain’s Table.

They tumble from one adventure to the next, some created inadvertently by themselves and some, like the fate of the shackled prisoner, spied on from their hiding place in a lifeboat.

Much later Michael realises the impact of the voyage and the special connection he shared with his friends. He understands how it’s not the powerful, but the strangers, like the colourful characters at the Cat’s Table, that have altered him.

While reading the book I felt the sway of the ship and heard the stamping steam engines. It has sentences that I taste again and again. His insights into life and people punch me in the stomach. The passage through the Suez Canal should be mandatory reading for anyone wanting to understand “show don’t tell”.

Josine Overdevest

Posted on: 18th February 2012