A good month has gone by, as I look back on The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. Sometimes you need a little distance to feel the impact of good writing.
Discussing the book with many different books groups is a gift. It allows me to see the tale through many readers’ perspectives. However, hearing how others react to a book can cloud my vision of my own reading experience.
The Cat’s Table is written deceivingly well. It almost feels like you dreamt it. Part Rushdie, part David Mitchell, a bit Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but ultimately Ondaatje.
An immigrant story and a coming of age journey, The Cat’s Table touches on that vague place in our past, where we weren’t children anymore, but surely neither were we adolescents. Like the journey our main character takes, on a ship, from Sir Lanka to England, for three weeks, we are part of this ethereal transition, with no name. Adventures are plenty, confusion and misinterpretation abound, chronicled in journals, etched in hearts and thrown overboard.
Untethered by country, terra firma and family, we follow an 11-year-old boy as remembered by his adult self. The Cat’s Table whispers in short chapters. The story unfolds and flows into other tales, slowly revealing connections or leaving open-ended wonder. Ondaatje explores that Jamesian time where decisions are made that can determine the trajectory of the rest of our lives. Those choices can condemn us to wonder and question, in those quiet moments, where we are lost in the memories of experiences that firmly shaped our lives.