The Cat's Table (Vintage International)

The Cat's Table - Michael Ondaatje This was beautifully written and characterized. If I was reluctant to give it five stars, well, I've had a run of special books lately; I read this on the heels of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, and in comparison this didn't move or amaze me as much or make me think, "yes, I will reread this." On the other hand, it did make me think, "I'd definitely try more of this author." (Although I've read this novel is atypical for the author in several respects--more accessible, less experimental in style.) It's a fairly short, fast read. It's written as if it was a memoir of Michael, looking back to when he was eleven-years-old traveling alone from his birthplace of Ceylon to his new home in England. The time embraced is longer than that, as we get glimpses of the island home he's leaving, and times since, for the voyage reverberates strongly in his life afterwards. But the focus is on the small "city" or "castle" of the ship S.S. Oronsay during a three-week voyage in 1954 through the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Its spaces and decks are described with enough detail to bring it vividly to mind. In its way it's as impressive a work of world-building as a work of fantasy or science fiction. The cast of characters is vividly presented too--particularly the members of the "Cat's Table." The Cat's Table is the opposite of the Captain's Table. It's as far away as possible from that place of honor, in the most undesirable spot, and peopled with the least socially distinguished of the liner's passengers. But quite a few of those people become important both to the young Michael (not lost on me he shares a name with the author) and to the reader. They're more than they appear at first, several having secrets of their own. There's the other two young boys his own age, Ramadhin and Cassius, the "spinster" Miss Lasquetti, the botanist Larry Daniels with his garden of poisonous plants in the ship's hold, Mr Nevil, who dismantles ships for a living, and the mysterious pianist Mazappa. There are some elements of the plot that stretch credulity more than a bit, but mostly this is a sweet, though not too sweet, tale of childhood, when you believed anything could happen, and thought it had. It was a pleasure to read.