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The Cat's Table
Cover of The Cat's Table
The Cat's Table
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In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy in Colombo boards a ship bound for England. At mealtimes he is seated at the “cat’s table”—as far from the Captain’s Table as can be—with a ragtag group of “insignificant” adults and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. As the ship makes its way across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, the boys tumble from one adventure to another, bursting all over the place like freed mercury. But there are other diversions as well: one man talks with them about jazz and women, another opens the door to the world of literature. The narrator’s elusive, beautiful cousin Emily becomes his confidante, allowing him to see himself “with a distant eye” for the first time, and to feel the first stirring of desire. Another Cat’s Table denizen, the shadowy Miss Lasqueti, is perhaps more than what she seems. And very late every night, the boys spy on a shackled prisoner, his crime and his fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever.
 
As the narrative moves between the decks and holds of the ship and the boy’s adult years, it tells a spellbinding story—by turns poignant and electrifying—about the magical, often forbidden, discoveries of childhood and a lifelong journey that begins unexpectedly with a spectacular sea voyage.
In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy in Colombo boards a ship bound for England. At mealtimes he is seated at the “cat’s table”—as far from the Captain’s Table as can be—with a ragtag group of “insignificant” adults and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. As the ship makes its way across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, the boys tumble from one adventure to another, bursting all over the place like freed mercury. But there are other diversions as well: one man talks with them about jazz and women, another opens the door to the world of literature. The narrator’s elusive, beautiful cousin Emily becomes his confidante, allowing him to see himself “with a distant eye” for the first time, and to feel the first stirring of desire. Another Cat’s Table denizen, the shadowy Miss Lasqueti, is perhaps more than what she seems. And very late every night, the boys spy on a shackled prisoner, his crime and his fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever.
 
As the narrative moves between the decks and holds of the ship and the boy’s adult years, it tells a spellbinding story—by turns poignant and electrifying—about the magical, often forbidden, discoveries of childhood and a lifelong journey that begins unexpectedly with a spectacular sea voyage.
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  • From the book

    THE CAT'S TABLE by Michael Ondaatje
    He wasn't talking. He was looking from the window of the car all the way. Two adults in the front seat spoke quietly under their breath. He could have listened if he wanted to, but he didn't. For a while, at the section of the road where the river sometimes flooded, he could hear the spray of water at the wheels. They entered the Fort and the car slipped silently past the post office building and the clock tower. At this hour of the night there was barely any traffic in Colombo. They drove out along Reclamation Road, passed St. Anthony's Church, and after that he saw the last of the food stalls, each lit with a single bulb. Then they entered a vast open space that was the harbour, with only a string of lights in the distance along the pier. He got out and stood by the warmth of the car.

    He could hear the stray dogs that lived on the quays barking out of the darkness. Nearly everything around him was invisible, save for what could be seen under the spray of a few sulphur lanterns--watersiders pulling a procession of baggage wagons, some families huddled together. They were all beginning to walk towards the ship.

    He was eleven years old that night when, green as he could be about the world, he climbed aboard the first and only ship of his life. It felt as if a city had been added to the coast, better lit than any town or village. He went up the gangplank, watching only the path of his feet--nothing ahead of him existed--and continued till he faced the dark harbour and sea. There were outlines of other ships farther out, beginning to turn on lights. He stood alone, smelling everything, then came back through the noise and the crowd to the side that faced land. A yellow glow over the city. Already it felt there was a wall between him and what took place there. Stewards began handing out food and cor- dials. He ate several sandwiches, and after that he made his way down to his cabin, undressed, and slipped into the narrow bunk. He'd never slept under a blanket before, save once in Nuwara Eliya. He was wide awake. The cabin was below the level of the waves, so there was no porthole. He found a switch beside the bed and when he pressed it his head and pillow were suddenly lit by a cone of light.

    He did not go back up on deck for a last look, or to wave at his relatives who had brought him to the harbour. He could hear singing and imagined the slow and then eager parting of families taking place in the thrilling night air. I do not know, even now, why he chose this solitude. Had whoever brought him onto the Oronsay already left? In films people tear themselves away from one another weeping, and the ship separates from land while the departed hold on to those disappearing faces until all distinction is lost.
    I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was. Perhaps a sense of self is not even there in his nervous stillness in the narrow bunk, in this green grasshopper or little cricket, as if he has been smuggled away accidentally, with no knowledge of the act, into the future.

    He woke up, hearing passengers running along the corridor. So he got back into his clothes and left the cabin. Something was happening. Drunken yells filled the night, shouted down by officials. In the middle of B Deck, sailors were attempting to grab hold of the harbour pilot. Having guided the ship meticulously out of the harbour (there were many routes to be avoided because of submerged wrecks and an earlier breakwater), he had gone on to have too many drinks to celebrate his achievement. Now, apparently, he simply did not wish to leave. Not just yet. Perhaps another hour or two with the ship. But the Oronsay was eager to depart on...

About the Author-
  • Michael Ondaatje is the author of five previous novels, a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and several books of poetry. The English Patient won the Booker Prize; Anil’s Ghost won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Giller Prize, and the Prix Médicis. Born in Sri Lanka, Michael Ondaatje now lives in Toronto.
     
    www.michaelondaatje.com

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from August 22, 2011
    In Ondaatje’s best novel since his Booker Prize–winning The English Patient, an 11-year-old boy sets off on a voyage from Ceylon to London, where his mother awaits. Though Ondaatje tells us firmly in the “Author’s Note” that the story is “pure invention,” the young boy is also called Michael, was also born in Ceylon, and also grows up to become a writer. This air of the meta adds a gorgeous, modern twist to the timeless story of boys having an awfully big adventure: young Michael meets two children of a similar age on the Oronsay, Cassius and Ramadhin, and together the threesome gets up to all kinds of mischief on the ship, with, and at the expense of, an eccentric set of passengers. But it is Michael’s older, beguiling cousin, Emily, also onboard, who allows him glimpses of the man he is to become. As always, Ondaatje’s prose is lyrical, but here it is tempered; the result is clean and full of grace, such as in this description of the children having lashed themselves to the deck to experience a particularly violent storm: “our heads were stretched back to try to see how deep the bow would go on its next descent. Our screams unheard, even to each other, even to ourselves,
    even if the next day our throats were raw from yelling into that hallway of the sea.”

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from January 30, 2012
    It only adds to the autobiographical nature of Ondaatje’s novel—concerning a young boy who journeys by ship from Sri Lanka to England in the 1950s—that the author narrates this audio edition of his latest work. The mellifluous tones of Ondaatje’s accent (part British and part subcontinental) are themselves testament to the memoiristic underpinnings of his novel. He reads without a professional’s preciseness, and yet, knowing his work as well as he does, captures the subtle music of its understated prose. Listeners will relish Ondaatje’s occasional variations from traditional British pronunciation, each one serving as a symbol of the book itself, which spans two continents and two eras. Listening to Ondaatje read becomes a pleasure in its own right; being neither here nor there, the author is himself much like the tale he tells, and the boy at its heart. A Knopf hardcover.

  • Library Journal

    May 1, 2011

    One of the first books I reviewed at LJ was Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, and I have loved him for his luscious language and penetrating insights ever since. So I'm thrilled he has a new novel forthcoming. His hero, an 11-year-old bound for England aboard a ship chugging through the Indian Ocean, finds himself seated during dinner at the unpropitious "cat's table." His tablemates include two other boys, with whom he has some wild adventures, and some outre adults who talk to him of literature, jazz, and women. More than shipboard entertainment, this novel promises to plumb our first painful steps toward growing up. With an 11-city tour, a 100,000-first printing, and a reading group guide

    Copyright 2011 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from September 1, 2011
    In 1953, an 11-year-old boy's life is permanently upended when he leaves Colombo, Ceylon, to begin a new life in London with his mother. His 21 unsupervised days aboard the ocean liner Oronsay prove momentous as significant events during the crossing profoundly impact the boy's future while immensely expanding his world. Although seemingly at the periphery of society, seated at the so-called cat's table, the boy's dining matesan assortment of colorful charactersare, in fact, a lot more instrumental in the ensuing intrigue aboard the ship than originally appears. The boy, Michael, and two companions have the run of the ship. They get up early each morning for various adventures. They eavesdrop, get into trouble, and observe adult situations that they lack the facility to interpret. Michael finds himself assistant to Baron C. in the breaking and entering of the ship's cabins to make off with various valuables. A dog they smuggled aboard from the port city of Aden escapes, creating much havoc; an on-board prisoner plots a getaway; and budding sexuality begins to sprout. As the years pass, Michael, who grows up to be an acclaimed writer with an international reputation (not unlike Ondaatje, especially for The English Patient, 1992), frequently returns to the events of those three weeks and demonstrates how over the years, confusing fragments, lost corners of stories, have a clearer meaning when seen in a new light, a different place. High-Demand Backstory: An extensive U.S. author tour will bring attention anew to the literary talents of this remarkable writer.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2011, American Library Association.)

  • Globe and Mail (Canada) "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."
  • The Scotsman (UK) "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."
  • Publishers Weekly (starred) "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."
  • Financial Times (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."
  • Sunday Telegraph (UK) "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."
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