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Book Review: The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

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The main character of Michael Ondaatje’sThe Cat’s Table narrates his journey from Sri Lanka to England as a 11-year old on a ship named Oronsay. Notably,  the main character is also named Michael, and–though the author himself  moved from Sri Lanka to England as a child–an author’s note in the novel points out that the story and its characters are completely fictional. 

Michael is accompanied by two boys of his same age (Ramadhin and Cassius), a snobbish woman who is supposed to be Michael’s guardian, a short-tempered captain, a mystifying chained prisoner, a shadowy performing artist, a botanist, a mute tailor, an ailing businessman, and a thief.

Also on board the ship is Emily, with whom who Michael has a crush, and Mr. Fonsecal, who Michael thinks is a man of serenity and certainty because Fonseca is surrounded by books. In addition, there is Miss Lasqueti, who keeps reading thrillers that disappoints her, causing her to toss the novels over the ship’s railings.

Through these characters, the narrator touches upon such themes as loss, fate, disguised lives, and intimacy in writing is that is wonderfully clear. Consider for instance, this passage: “What did bring the two of us together more than anything was Emily’s record collection, with all those life times and desires rhymed and distilled into two or three minutes of a song.”

And sometimes the writing is so visual, like when the storm blows away the film setup and “the gust ripped the screen loose and sent it shattering over the ocean like a ghost and the images continued to shout out, targetless, over the sea.”

Overall, The Cat’s Table is absorbing, in large part due to being conveyed from point of view of a child. On Oronsay, the 11-year-old Michael closely observes the adults. The novel is not at all taxing to read because of its clear prose.

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