Of course everyone’s tastes are different when it comes to books (and many other things). A friend passed along The Cat’s Table with the unsolicited comment that she didn’t like it. I started to buy it when it came out a year ago, mainly because it was written by Michael Ondaatje, Booker Prize winning author of The English Patient. But now I have it, I’ve read it and I liked it quite a bit.
First of all to explain the title: on ocean liners the table farthest away from the captain’s table is called the cat’s table or as one of the passengers assigned to this table says, “We’re in the least privileged place.” The narrator is a boy of 11, Michael, who along with two other young boys, is assigned to the cat’s table. Set in the early 1950s, the story tells of the many adventures the three youngsters have onboard as the ship makes its ways from Ceylon to England. As they are not accompanied by adults, the trio roams the huge ship at odd hours and observes the collection of high brow and low brow passengers. These include a prisoner who’s brought in chains to walk the deck in the early morning hours; a nobleman who meets his demise on the trip; scholars; musicians; and a host of others.
There’s something rather poignant about seeing these assorted travelers through the eyes of children. As The Washington Post reviewer wrote, “Lithe and quietly profound: a tale about the magic of adolescence and the passing strangers who help tip us into adulthood in ways we don’t become aware of until much later.”
There are some especially compelling observations of Mr. Fonseka, who is traveling to England to teach. Our young protagonist describes Fonseka as gracious with his quietness. When he spoke, he was tentative and languid. As Michael contemplates the “spare” life the man would have as an urban teacher, he comments, “But he had a serenity that came with the choice of the life he wanted to live. And this serenity and certainty I have seen only among those who have the armour of books close by.” Isn’t that a beautiful thought? And one with which — as book lovers — we must agree.
I have to add that the narrator lets us know what happens to the three young boys after they reach England, but the action, the heart and soul of the story, takes place aboard the Oronsay.