Sunday, January 25, 2015

21 days on an Ocean Liner with an 11-year-old boy

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje


Michael Ondaatje (author of "The English Patient"), has a distinctively unique style to his writing. His literary voice is poetic and fluid, yet also highly accessible. This comes through in all his writing, giving his work a deceptively simplistic feel, while remaining evocatively beautiful. However, he also likes to surprise his readers in the way he constructs his books, and each one is a bit different from his others. For instance, his previous two novels, Anil's Ghost and Divisadero, are almost conventionally structured. Other of his works, including this novel, are more like series of vignettes with lines of disjointed dialog or poetry, not all of which follow a direct timeline. While this may sound like it could be confusing, Ondaatje's artistry is in that the reader never feels like they aren't sure of when and where the action is taking place. This he does with the language alone, without any superfluous background information or details.

Michael, the narrator of this story, is an 11-year old boy, traveling on the ocean liner The Oronsays, from his birthplace in Sri Lanka to rejoin his mother in London in the early 1950s. On board he finds two other boys his age - the brash and bold Cassius, and Ramadhin, the delicate boy with a heart condition. For their meals, these three eat at the lowliest of tables on the ship - known as The Cat's Table. The voyage is three weeks long, giving them more than enough time to have many adventures and forge life-long friendships. These boys, along with a mixed group of very colorful adult travelers turn their voyage into both an education and an adventure.

Apparently, in those days, it wasn't uncommon for boys to travel like this unaccompanied. Of course, there is one adult passenger to keep an eye on him - an acquaintance of his uncle's - Flavia Prins - traveling in first class. Not long after the journey begins, he finds an older distant cousin on board - Emily. Along with these two women, we get a slew of characters that all touch the lives of these boys in different ways. Since these youngsters wear their innocent curiosity on their sleeves, those they meet aren't passengers alone. The reader then becomes acquainted with a conglomeration of characters from the ailing millionaire in first class, right down to the transport of a dangerous prisoner going to trial and many more in between - including workers on both the ship and the shores they come to. Combine this with the vignette composition of the book, tied together with the boys' investigations, and you end up with a kaleidoscope view of this vessel and voyage, which progresses in chronological order.

Within all this, we also get the narrator interspersing events that are more recent, in a type of autobiography showing the effect this had on his later life. This means that he also includes key events that happened long after his arrival in England, which would never have been had he not taken that particular ship on that specific sailing. In essence, he shows the reader how that trip molded both his personality and his life. It is interesting to note that Ondaatje actually had a voyage very much like this in his real life. He was born in Sri Lanka (which was Ceylon at the time), and he did sail to England at that age. Ondaatje puts even more of his life in this story, by naming the narrator after himself as well as having him become a writer as an adult who moves to Canada. While that is where (according to the author's notes) the similarities end, the deeply personal feel of this book is ultimately obvious.

With all this included, one might assume that this is some sweeping saga with hundreds of chapters. However, this is where the real surprise is, since Ondaatje does all this in less than 300 pages of nicely spaced lines printed in a clear, normal-sized font. Therefore, while the scope of this book seems vast, the economy of the prose along with the careful use of suggestive language is what makes this into a cohesive piece that the reader will sail through it - both literally and figuratively.

In short, this masterfully constructed novel contains a deceptively simple prose style that almost makes the reader able to smell the salt air. The story has a very intimate feel to it, which makes the characters feel real and alive, bordering on being an autobiography, if not a fictional memoir. Moreover, the age and innocence of this young boy and his new friends make the adventures and troubles they get into on the ship very believable. This is arguably Ondaatje's best work since "The English Patient," in both style and content, and is highly recommended with a full five out of five stars.




"The Cat's Table" by Michael Ondaatje is available on Kindle from Amazon, Nook from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook or audiobook from iTunes, in paperback (free delivery worldwide) from The Book Depository, or from an IndieBound store near you.

(This is a revised version of a review that appears on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady, and also appeared on {the now defunct websites} Helium and Yahoo! Contributor Network.)