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The Cat's Table Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 4, 2011
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This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, October 2011: Michael Ondaatje's finely wrought new novel chronicles a young boy's passage from Sri Lanka to London onboard the Oronsay, both as it unfolds and in hindsight. Glancing off the author's own biography, the story follows 11-year-old Michael as he immerses himself in the hidden corners and relationships of a temporary floating world, overcoming its physical boundaries with the expanse of his imagination. The boy's companions at the so-called cat's table, where the ship’s unconnected strays dine together, become his friends and teachers, each leading him closer to the key that unlocks the Oronsay's mystery decades later. Elegantly structured and completely absorbing, The Cat's Table is a quiet masterpiece by a writer at the height of his craft. --Mia Lipman
Guest Reviewer: Abraham Verghese on The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje
One means by which I have kept track of the passage of time is by the appearance of a new Michael Ondaatje book. I’ve loved his poetry (and I still know long passages from Secular Love by heart). I love the way his books of poetry or prose, fiction or nonfiction (and some of his books are hybrids that seem to be all those genres in one book) are so carefully crafted. I must have read In the Skin of a Lion 10 times, disassembling it to see how this magic alchemy came about.
You can imagine my excitement when The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje’s latest, arrived on my desk. I found myself reading aloud with a loved one, savoring, just a few pages a day that were carefully rationed. Reading aloud was a way to make every morsel last longer, have it linger on tongue and ear. I can’t think of a book I’ve read where the sense of a journey—in this case, a ship going from Ceylon to England via the Suez Canal—is so carefully mirrored in the reader’s experience. I had the sense of movement, of a big ship inching away from the shore, and of seeing one’s former life recede. At the assigned dinner table (from which the title derives), one meets fellow travelers and the brief bios they present to the world. With each passing day, the narrator finds that these constructed selves give way to something deeper, something overstated, or something dark and ominous, or at other times they modestly conceal a being that is incredibly beautiful and heroic. As the journey progresses, the many characters and the flavors each adds begin to meld together, and I had a sense of the narrative soup thickening, the pace increasing. Indeed, by the last few pages it was as though we had arrived all too soon at the bottom of a most delicious cioppino or bouillabaisse. The fleshy items were dispensed with, the shells all removed, leaving only those last few spoonfuls, and in them a wise world, a complete world, a world distilled. When it was over, I had that sense one lives for as a reader: the feeling of having discovered a truth not just about the imagined world of the novelist, but also about oneself, a truth one can now carry forth into the world, into the rest of one’s life....
Make haste to get this book, then do what I did: Fill up the tub, ration yourself to a few pages a day, read aloud, preferably to someone as crazy about Ondaatje as you are. Be disciplined. Don’t exceed your ration. It is a long voyage but it will go by too soon. So relish. Enjoy!
Abraham Verghese is the author of the internationally best-selling novel Cutting for Stone, which has been translated into 23 languages and spent over a year on the New York Times best-seller list. He is also the author of My Own Country, a 1994 NBCC Finalist and a Time Best Book of the Year, and The Tennis Partner, a New York Times Notable Book. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has published essays and short stories in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Granta, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. He is currently Professor and Senior Associate Chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University and lives in Palo Alto, California.
“The Cat’s Table is just as skillfully wrought as Ondaatje’s magnum opus The English Patient, but its picaresque childhood adventure gives it a special power and intimacy . . . He is a master at creating characters, whom he chooses to present, memorably, as individuals. This choice is of a piece with the freshness and originality that are the hallmarks of The Cat’s Table.”
—Wall Street Journal
“A joy and a lark to read . . . Within a few pages of the book’s opening, The Cat’s Table has done a miraculous thing—it has ceased to be a book, or even a piece of art. It is merely a story, unfolding before the reader’s eyes, its churning motor a mystery about what it is exactly that happened on this boat . . . Told in short bursts of exposition so beautiful one actually feels the urge to slow the reading down, the novel shows us how the boy assembles the man.”
“The Cat’s Table is an exquisite example of the richness that can flourish in the gaps between fact and fiction . . . Ondaatje has an eerily precise grasp of the immediacy of a child’s world view, and an extraordinary sense of individual destiny . . . It is an adventure story, it is a meditation on power, memory, art, childhood, love and loss. It displays a technique so formidable as to seem almost playful. It is one of those rare books that one could reread an infinite number of times, and always find something new within its pages.”
—Evening Standard (UK)
“This book is wonderful, offering all the best pleasures of Ondaatje’s writing: his musical prose, up-tempo; his ear for absurd, almost surreal dialogue, which had me laughing out loud in public as I read; his admiration for craftsmanship and specialized language in the sciences and the trades; and his sumptuous evocations of sensual delight . . . In many ways, this book is Ondaatje’s most intimate yet.”
—Globe and Mail (Canada)
“A treasure chest of escapades from a pitch-perfect writer, an immaculate observer of the dance of humans, giving us an intoxicating mix of tenderly rendered boy’s eye perspective and the musings of the older narrator looking back on this intensely formative voyage . . . It is a classic, perfect premise for a novel packed with possibilities. Put it in the hands of one of the most subtle and surprising masters of world writing, Michael Ondaatje, and unalloyed joy lies latent in every sentence and sensuous quirk of the narrative. This is simply blissful storytelling . . . Think the seafaring Joseph Conrad, with an invigorating infusion of Treasure Island, a touch of Mark Twain.”
—The Scotsman (UK)
“Ondaatje’s best novel since his Booker Prize–winning The English Patient . . . [An] air of the meta adds a gorgeous, modern twist to the timeless story of boys having an awfully big adventure . . . As always, Ondaatje’s prose is lyrical, but here it is tempered; the result is clean and full of grace.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred)
“A graceful, closely observed novel that blends coming-of-age tropes with a Conradian sea voyage . . . Beautifully detailed, without a false note: It is easy to imagine, in Ondaatje’s hands, being a passenger in the golden age of transoceanic voyaging, amid a sea of cocktail glasses and overflowing ashtrays, if in this case a setting more worthy of John le Carré than Noel Coward . . . Elegiac, mature, and nostalgic—a fine evocation of childhood, and of days irretrievably past.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Ondaatje is justly recognized as a master of literary craft . . . The novel tells of a journey from childhood to the adult world, as well as a passage from the homeland to another country, something of a Dantean experience.”
—Annie Proulx, The Guardian (UK)
“Ondaatje’s wondrous prose feels more alive to the world than ever before . . . This is a simpler story, more simply told, than Ondaatje has accustomed his readers to . . . Yet The Cat’s Table is no less thrilling in its attempts to capture beauty in its various and terrifying forms.”
—Financial Times (UK)
“Richly enjoyable, often very funny, and gleams like a really smart liner on a sunny day . . . The magic of this fine book is in the strange inventiveness of its episodes. Ondaatje is really the master of incident in the novel, and the enchantments wash over the reader in waves . . . The beauty of Ondaatje’s writing is in its swift accuracy; it sings with the simple precision of the gaze.”
—Daily Telegraph (UK)
“The Cat’s Table is Ondaatje’s most accessible, most compelling novel to date. It may also be his finest . . . Ondaatje’s prose is, as always, stunning . . . The Cat’s Table is a breathtaking account not only of boyhood, but of its loss. It is a novel filled with utterly unique characters and situations, but universal in its themes, heartbreakingly so, and a journey the reader will never forget.”
—Vancouver Sun (Canada)
“An eloquent, elegiac tribute to the game of youth and how it shapes what follows . . . One of the strengths of the novel is the sheer brilliance of characterization on show. The bit players on board the Oronsay are almost Dickensian in their eccentricity and lovability . . . In The Cat’s Table, he has not only captured with acute precision the precarious balance of his characters’ existence on the move but also the battle that adults wage for the retention of the awe and wonder they once took for granted in their childhood. Ultimately, Ondaatje has created a beautiful and poetic study hre of what it means to have your very existence metaphorically, as well as literally, all at sea.”
—Independent on Sunday (UK)
“A novel superbly poised between the magic of innocence and the melancholy of experience.”
“Is there a novelist who writes more compellingly about tenderness than Ondaatje? . . . The Cat’s Table is a voyage of discovery for the reader as well as for its narrator. I loved the book, was dazzled by its language, and looked forward to turning each page to learn what would happen next.”
—Montreal Gazette (Canada)
“The Cat’s Table deserves to be recognized for the beauty and poetry of its writing: pages that lull you with their carefully constructed rhythm, sailing you effortlessly from chapter to chapter and leaving you bereft when forced to disembark at the novel’s end.”
—Sunday Telegraph (UK)
“So enveloping and beautifully rendered, one is reluctant to disembark at the end of the journey . . . The best novels and poetry possess a kind of bottomlessness: each time a reader revisits a masterful work, she finds something new. Though the ocean journey in The Cat’s Table lasts a mere 21 days, it encapsulates the fullness of a lifetime. This reader will undoubtedly return to it and unearth new treasures from its depths.”
—Quill and Quire (Canada)
Top customer reviews
Two other passengers Michael knows only by sight. Sir Hector de Silva, a wealthy but ill passenger in Emperor Class accommodations, has bad luck with dogs, perhaps because a spell was cast upon him. At the opposite end of the social spectrum is a prisoner, rumored to be a murderer, whose midnight strolls on the deck -- closely guarded and in chains -- the concealed boys observe with fascination.
Michael Ondaatje keeps all these characters in motion like a master juggler. They are a fascinating bunch, and Ondaatje weaves them in and out of the narrative while maintaining a perfectly balanced pace: not so quick that the story whizzes by without time to appreciate its nuances; not so deliberate as to lose its energetic force.
At its midway point, the novel skips ahead from the 1953 voyage to events that occur twenty years later in Michael's life, events that trigger memories of the friends with whom he bonded on that formative journey. Although the writing in that section is exceptionally strong and quite moving, it has an out-of-joint feel, particularly when the flash forward ends and the voyage resumes. Subsequent interruptions to tell the reader of future events are shorter and more seamlessly integrated into the narrative. Eventually those passages become essential to the story; they complete it. Ondaatje writes: "Over the years, confusing fragments, lost corners of stories, have a clearer meaning when seen in a new light, a different place." The perspective that Michael gains with time, after reconnecting with individuals he met on the voyage, permits him (and thus the reader) to reinterpret events that occurred on the ocean -- particularly a moment of drama that becomes the story's nucleus, and that Michael can only understand fully many years later. For that reason, although The Cat's Table could be viewed as a coming of age novel, I think Ondaatje is suggesting that we spend our lifetimes coming of age -- that is, acquiring the wisdom and perspective of adulthood.
There is a restrained, graceful elegance to Ondaatje's prose that every now and then made me stop, blink, and reread a beautifully composed sentence or paragraph. He writes with affection of dogs and artists, of the needy and of those who give selflessly of themselves. This is a marvelously humane novel that works on a number of levels, but most of all, it is a joy to read.
Eventually, Ondaatje begins to clarify his theme. In the context of these boyish adventures, he is apparently interested in "...events [that] take a lifetime to reveal their damage and influence..." and "...bodies of water; in them you could see the darkness below the surface where it attempted to reach the light."
The narrator of TCT is Michael, one of the boys, who has become a successful writer and is, after twenty-some years, looking back on his shipboard experiences. As a psychological journey, TCT is involving work, with Michael relating how he and his friends first explored a world beyond their country and families and experienced their first scents of sensuality. To enlarge this psychological journey, Ondaatje also includes a mysterious prisoner, who the boys see manacled on deck at night, where he is heavily guarded.
My copy of TCT has 265 pages of text. And up to page 240, Michael is primarily considering his incomplete understanding of this coming-of-age voyage. Why, he wants to know, does he feel so connected to his peers on the ship since they have, in time, drifted apart? Why, he wonders, do... "we all have an old knot in the heart we wish to loosen and untie?"
Then, Ondaatje pulls a switcheroo and we learn that Michael is actually bothered by a heretofore unmentioned and apparently lethal incident with the prisoner, in which some of Michael's peers may have been complicit. IMO, this final 10% of TCT reads like a lame crime story, with the motivation and sudden action of a not-to-be-named female character too literary and totally improbable. I admit: the final 10% of TCT is interesting, since it suggests a fuller story for the voyage and the prisoner. But as a mystery, the book, hinges on the incredible.
TCT is a very balanced novel. It has two contrasting incidents with dogs, two with stuff going overboard, two teenage girls with difficult fathers, a character who is deaf and a character is dumb, a garden and a prison in the hold of the ship, and so on. Yes, TCT shows an awareness of craft. But balance a great novel does not make. Rounded up to four stars.