This is my review of The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje.
The cat's table is "the least privileged place" in the dining room aboard an ocean liner bound for Tilbury from Ceylon in 1954. The narrator, Michael , recalls how, as an eleven-year-old, this is where he meets not just two other unaccompanied boys, but a group of eccentric adults. In the accurate belief that they are invisible, at least until their mischief brings them to the captain's notice, these three racket around, experiencing the complex life of a ship, straying below deck and into first class, eavesdropping as they lie hidden in the lifeboats where they gorge the emergency chocolate rations, getting involved in bizarre events, hearing quirky, often unsuitable anecdotes, all of this related in short chapters which add to the fragmented, dreamlike quality of the voyage.
The "main plot" of the story, which revolves round a mysterious shackled prisoner who is brought out for exercise at night, proves rather thin and implausible with an unsatisfying ending, yet does not appear to be the author's main concern.
The novel seems to be mostly about the nature of memory and the way people relate to one another, so that fleeting impressions, brief incidents and passing friendships from early life may prove unexpectedly enduring and significant in adulthood.
I found the description of the voyage and numerous rambling into vignettes very evocative and absorbing. Less satisfactory are the frequent "flash forwards" to Michael's later life. His adult relationships with his cousin Emily and with his friend's sister Massi do not prove as convincing and moving as I think they are intended to be.
It is interesting to speculate to what extent the events of the voyage make Michael permanently mistrustful , someone who breaks too "easily away from intimacy", although having rather distant parents and uncaring relatives who think it in order to send him unaccompanied on a long voyage is probably the main reason.
Overall, this is an unusual novel which lingers in one's mind. It is brilliant in ways that will differ according to the reader's own cast of thought. An example of this for me is the description of the night-time sailing through the Suez canal, which years later Michael's friend Cassius captures in paintings which only Michael can appreciate have been drawn "from the exact angle of vision Cassius and I had that night". I like the humour in Michael's list of the irascible captain's "crimes committed (so far)" most of which are actually the children's fault. However, the tale is also flawed when some allusion or plot development misses the mark or falls flat.