The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje (2011)

I feel like I should have loved this book, but to be honest, I only liked it.  Perhaps I wasn’t in the right mindset, perhaps I was too focused on finishing it in time for book club, or perhaps my reading it on a Kindle (my first e-reader experience) clouded my judgment. Whatever it was, the book did not pull me in the way I expected to be pulled in.  It was more like a current sweeping me along than a wave forcing me into its curl.  Eleven-year-old Michael travels from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to England in the 1950’s on a three week ship’s journey.  He and his companions find themselves eating each night at the “Cat’s Table,” the antithesis to the Captain’s table because it is made up of third class passengers: the misfits, the poor, the troublemakers.  But the very social status that keeps them out of the limelight allows them freedom to roam to ship largely unnoticed which is perfect for Michael and his two friends. So we get little snippets of their adventures aboard the ship, all of which are quite entertaining. Ondaatje’s descriptions put us right there in the hot engine room, the salty pool, the deck flooded with powerful waves in the midst of a typhoon, the lifeboats where the boys hide and eavesdrop on conversations. The first half of the book is largely made up of these stories, but after a hundred pages of little boy gallivants, I started to wonder about the point of the story.  Was it merely a collection of ship mischief?  And the stories not only included Michael and his two cohorts, but also about 30 other characters, most of whom are intriguing, but largely undeveloped.  Just about the time I felt like I knew a character,the focus shifted to someone else.  Unfortunately, I just didn’t care enough about any of the characters to love the book.

The story then begins shifting back and forth between  Michael’s life as a grown man in England and his life as a boy on the ship.  I appreciated the child vs. adult perspective this offers the story, but I still didn’t care enough about the characters to then zoom in on a few of them as adults, delving into Michael’s complicated relationships with them.  What I did like–and what I wished he had spent more time on–was the cultural challenges of leaving Ceylon behind and forging a new life in Europe, something a few characters from the ship ultimately struggled with. We get snippets of life in Ceylon, and I was pulled into that culture, immediately diving into a Google search to learn more about its history, culture, and precise location.

Despite, some of the book’s shortcomings, Ondaatje offered some notable insights on human behavior and he created numerous memorable images.  A few of my favorites: In describing loss Michael narrates,  “I am someone who has a cold heart.  If I am beside a great grief I throw barriers up so the loss cannot go too deep or too far.  There is a wall instantly in place, and it will not fall.” I think many of us have “cold hearts” because it is a coping mechanism that keeps grief and loss from creeping into our daily lives. A  young girl named Asuntha is described as “deaf, and that made her seem even more frail and alone. . .We watched her once, exercising on a trampoline. . . in mid-air, with all that silent space around her.” And later we get a description of the boys roaming the ship “bursting all over the place like freed mercury.”  Those are great descriptions.  The kid that made me stop and reread the sentence.  I just wish Ondaatje developed the characters as well as he developed some of his images.  Still, it’s a worthwhile story.  (fiction)

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