12 July 2014

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje, Book review

  • Series: Vintage International
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (June 12, 2012)
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307744418


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 crosses the Indian Ocean, the boys tumble from one adventure to another, bursting all over the place like freed mercury. But there are other diversions as well: they are first exposed to the magical worlds of jazz, women, and literature by their eccentric fellow travelers, and together they spy on a shackled prisoner, his crime and fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever. 

By turns poignant and electrifying, The Cat’s Table is a spellbinding story about the magical, often forbidden, discoveries of childhood, and a lifelong journey that begins unexpectedly with a spectacular sea voyage.

My thoughts:

I was enticed by the title, The Cat's Table denoting the least advantageous of all tables in a ship's dining area I am told, unlike the prestigious Captain's table. The story is multi-faceted as we discover a thorough congenial cast in Ondaatje's tale of a young boy sailing from Ceylon to England aboard the steamer S.S. Oronsay. 

Table # 76 seats nine people including two boys near Michael or Mynah's age our main protagonist, named Ramadhin and Cassius. Together the boys roam unchaperoned the decks at length, slip in the first class swimming pool in the early morning hours for a cool dip or hide into the raised lifeboats, where the friends learn to smoke and share vittles looted from buffet style food displays.

Those weeks on board exploring their surroundings will remain with the three boys although each will remembered it later in a different perspective.

Cruising across the Indian ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Red sea, through the Suez canal and the  Mediterranean to reach England and his mother, Mynah meets other fellow travelers, exotic colourful personages, some nondescript, each with their own story, who would sometime get off when reaching a port and just disappear. 

One passenger aboard the vessel is known to him, a distant older cousin. Her name is Emily...

A narrative of what developed all those years ago as remembered by an older Mynah, The Cat's Table conveys a child's innocent view of a very different world, now understood in a completely different light, that of adulthood.

Whilst I enjoyed the rendering of The English Patient for its complex but fallible plot line, this novel did not light any spark. 

Never a stale author, Michael Ondaatje's considerable literary skills are certainly not at fault, the topic however left me disappointed. I expected something on the line of Rudyard Kipling's "Kim"...
On a final note despite the memoirs like details this is pure coincidence and not Ondaatje's own story.

3 Stars!

Note: For mature readers due to adult thematic contents and strong language.

Meet the Author:

Michael Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka on 12 September 1943. He moved to England in 1954, and in 1962 moved to Canada where he has lived ever since. 

He was educated at the University of Toronto and Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and began teaching at York University in Toronto in 1971. He published a volume of memoir, entitled Running in the Family, in 1983. His collections of poetry include The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems (1981), which won the Canadian Governor General's Award in 1971; The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems (1989); and Handwriting: Poems (1998).

His first novel, Coming Through Slaughter (1976), is a fictional portrait of jazz musician Buddy Bolden. 

The English Patient (1992), set in Italy at the end of the Second World War, was joint winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction and was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 1996. 
Anil's Ghost (2000), set in Sri Lanka, tells the story of a young female anthropologist investigating war crimes for an international human rights group .

Additional information (HERE) and (HERE)

Note to Readers: This was a library loan and opinions are mine only!


  1. From the name of the book all I could see was a round table with cats in evening dress playing cards I'm not sure why I should think this.

    1. An artist with a sense of humour? But truly, there was a whole different life aboard a vessel decades ago, nothing like today!
      Hugs to Angus,


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