The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

I listened to this lovely novel, read by the author. There’s usually a good reason why actors with trained voices read fiction, but Ondaatje, with his low, lightly accented voice, who often slurs or even mispronounces words, is a remarkable narrator for this very personal coming of age story. I can’t imagine that I could have enjoyed it more–or even as much–on the printed page.

The narrator and main character is named Michael and he shares some biographical details with Ondaatje, so it’s hard in a story that’s appears so personal, so psychologically true, not to believe that we’re reading something close to memoir. But we’re not; we’re reading literature written by a master hand.

The novel takes place for the most part on a ship, called the Oronsay. Eleven-year old Michael is traveling from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to England to join the mother he hasn’t seen in 5 years. On the ship he is seated at the cat’s table–the opposite of the captain’s table–and there he meets 2 other unaccompanied boys his age: Cassius and Ramadhin.  For 3 weeks, trying to fill up the long days, they study their fellow passengers and cause trouble on the ship, but in the process they learn who they are. They come of age and Michael, in particular, reaches that moment between childhood and emerging adulthood when, for the first time, he has a sense of who he is.

Ondaatje’s evocation of that voyage, geographical and psychological, is lyrical yet precise. What at first seems like a catalog of the boys’ mischief turns into a story of intrigue, crime, passion, betrayal, and sadness so haunting that it leaves the reader longing for more. Ondaatje gives us a glimpse into the future for most of the characters but leaves us with an ambiguous ending–and nostalgia for a journey we’ve only read about.

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