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The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

The Cat's Table (2011)

by Michael Ondaatje

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1,9381185,308 (3.69)314
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» See also 314 mentions

English (116)  Spanish (1)  All languages (117)
Showing 1-5 of 116 (next | show all)
This small masterpiece proves Ondaatje can do anything. Read carefully, it is a master class in voice, time, and detail; managing to be both contained and expansive, particular and universal. Beside all the beauty and craft, it is several intersecting, self-sufficient plots that would work from any voice. Worth it for the movie scene alone. ( )
  Eoin | Jun 3, 2019 |
This book sucked! ( )
  Wapil | Mar 23, 2019 |
A lovingly-described portrait of a 14-year old boy traveling by ship from Ceylon to England in 1954. As a nobody, he finds himself seated for meals at the "cat's table", a euphemism for the table for the least desirable passengers and located the farthest from the captain's table. Needless to say, the characters he meets are a delightful collection and uninhibited by the most restrictive social customs as they have no farther to fall in social standing, at least on this 3-week voyage.

The boy makes friends with two others of similar age consigned to his table, and they spend their time spying on adults, discovering the hidden areas of the trip, and getting into considerable trouble at all hours. They stay up late to watch a murder suspect being given his midnight walk on deck, learn the whereabouts of an enormous painting, deep in the ship's bowels, of nude women riding the machines of war (a leftover from WWII), and are introduced by an adult at their table to a huge garden he is transporting and keeping alive below decks with artificial light and sprayed water. As the book progresses, the story slowly evolves from being the tale of the boy, interspersed with a few inklings of his future life, to the tale of the adult, looking back and examining his memories. ( )
  auntmarge64 | Dec 3, 2018 |
In 1954, our narrator Michael, is sent alone by ship from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to London where his mother has lived for the last three or four years of his young life. Although he is only 11, he is virtually unsupervised on this voyage, and determined to make the most of it. He is aided and abetted by two contemporary companions, Ramadhin and Cassius, the latter of whom he knew slightly at school; the three of them vow not to let a day of the three week passage go by without doing something forbidden. In the dining room, the boys are seated at "the Cat's Table", with several "insignificant" adults who will never be invited to dine with the Captain, unlike the family friend traveling in first class who has promised to "keep an eye on Michael". Despite that assurance, the boys are often left to their own devices, although not completely without adult companionship. Their exploits range from innocuous and mischievous to stupid and life-threatening. Most of the adults they associate with are up to something as well, or at least so it seems to the imaginative boys, who see and hear much that they do not fully understand. To the reader, however, it is clear that not all of the grown-up undertakings are good and legal. As we travel through those 21 days with Michael, we also get glimpses into the future, as he looks back on the adventure years later, interpreting parts of it in light of new information and wider experience. The pacing is gentle (other reviewers call it "slow" or even "plodding"), the writing is fine; there is very little plot, but many little stories. I found it a moving read. ( )
1 vote laytonwoman3rd | Jul 25, 2018 |
Three 11-year-old boys meet up on a ship from Sri Lanka to England; each will be met by relatives on arrival, but on ship they are pretty much on their own with only the most cursory guardians looking after them. Michael (the narrator), Cassius, and Rhamadhin spend their days exploring the ship, with particular attention to areas they are not allowed to be in. At dinner, they are seated at “the cat’s table,” far away from the prestigious Captain’s Table. Their dining companions are single adult travelers, each with their own story (which the boys only partially understand).

Michael relates their three weeks on board, and occasionally the story shifts into the future where we see the characters as adults. This, in turn, informs our interpretation of the sea voyage. There are some touching moments, and some difficult ones too. And of course children are not always the most reliable narrators. But when Michael finally disembarks in England, you know some of what lies ahead for him, both good and bad.

I don’t know how I overlooked this book when it was published, but I loved it, devouring it in just a few days. Highly recommended. ( )
2 vote lauralkeet | Jul 2, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 116 (next | show all)
Ondaatje has toned down the elevated consciousness and language that so permeated his last three novels (beginning with The English Patient). Fans will be glad to hear that the richly embroidered imagery of those works is still present, as well as the tantalizing Gothic tones of murder, lush sexuality and buried family secrets and curses...His technique, more reminiscent of a poet than a novelist, creates fascinating visual and sensual effects but makes the actual narrative of the voyage feel somewhat inert. This is probably intentional on Ondaatje’s part — he is using the Oronsay more as a point of meditation than momentum — although it does make the cinematic conclusion feel somewhat abrupt. ...The novel also contains a few too many passages of ponderous dialogue....There is much to enjoy, though, in this short, episodic novel, even for readers who may have found Ondaatje’s later works overly dense or poetic..
The story is constructed in a series of vignettes, stitched together in episodes that move backwards and forwards like the action of a Rubik Cube. One moment we are on board ship and the next on land many years into the future. The narrative both puzzles and unexpectedly pulls us up short....Such is the quality of the writing that not until we near the novel's end do we notice a false note in the character of Niemeyer. As the shackled prisoner, so necessary for the plot, he remains two-dimensional, with neither his presence, nor the working-out of his fate, really quite believable. That said, this is a quibble in what is otherwise a beautifully crafted whole.
I had trouble with the sudden rise to prominence of the characters that dominate the last part of the book. I felt I was being given an invented answer to a fabricated question, rather than an invitation to know who Michael is....Still, 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 that 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.
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And this is how I see the East.... I see it always from a small boat - not a light, not a stir, not a sound. We conversed in low wispers, as if afraid to wake up the land.... It is all in that moment when I opened my young eyes on it. I came upon it from a tussle with the sea.

Joseph Conrad, "Youth"
For Quintin, Griffin, Kristin, and Esta

For Anthony and for Constance
First words
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.
“It would always be strangers like them, at the various cat’s tables of my life, who would alter me,”
“We came to understand that small and important thing, that our lives could be large with interesting strangers who would pass us without any personal involvement.”
"What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves."
"There was no one else and no other place I could turn to with my emptiness."
"We all have an old knot in the heart we wish to loosen and untie."
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0307700119, Hardcover)

Amazon Best Books of the Month, October 2011: Michael Ondaatje's finely wrought new novel chronicles a young boy's passage from Sri Lanka to London onboard the Oronsay, both as it unfolds and in hindsight. Glancing off the author's own biography, the story follows 11-year-old Michael as he immerses himself in the hidden corners and relationships of a temporary floating world, overcoming its physical boundaries with the expanse of his imagination. The boy's companions at the so-called cat's table, where the ship’s unconnected strays dine together, become his friends and teachers, each leading him closer to the key that unlocks the Oronsay's mystery decades later. Elegantly structured and completely absorbing, The Cat's Table is a quiet masterpiece by a writer at the height of his craft. --Mia Lipman

Guest Reviewer: Abraham Verghese on The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

One means by which I have kept track of the passage of time is by the appearance of a new Michael Ondaatje book. I’ve loved his poetry (and I still know long passages from Secular Love by heart). I love the way his books of poetry or prose, fiction or nonfiction (and some of his books are hybrids that seem to be all those genres in one book) are so carefully crafted. I must have read In the Skin of a Lion 10 times, disassembling it to see how this magic alchemy came about.

You can imagine my excitement when The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje’s latest, arrived on my desk. I found myself reading aloud with a loved one, savoring, just a few pages a day that were carefully rationed. Reading aloud was a way to make every morsel last longer, have it linger on tongue and ear. I can’t think of a book I’ve read where the sense of a journey—in this case, a ship going from Ceylon to England via the Suez Canal—is so carefully mirrored in the reader’s experience. I had the sense of movement, of a big ship inching away from the shore, and of seeing one’s former life recede. At the assigned dinner table (from which the title derives), one meets fellow travelers and the brief bios they present to the world. With each passing day, the narrator finds that these constructed selves give way to something deeper, something overstated, or something dark and ominous, or at other times they modestly conceal a being that is incredibly beautiful and heroic. As the journey progresses, the many characters and the flavors each adds begin to meld together, and I had a sense of the narrative soup thickening, the pace increasing. Indeed, by the last few pages it was as though we had arrived all too soon at the bottom of a most delicious cioppino or bouillabaisse. The fleshy items were dispensed with, the shells all removed, leaving only those last few spoonfuls, and in them a wise world, a complete world, a world distilled. When it was over, I had that sense one lives for as a reader: the feeling of having discovered a truth not just about the imagined world of the novelist, but also about oneself, a truth one can now carry forth into the world, into the rest of one’s life....

Make haste to get this book, then do what I did: Fill up the tub, ration yourself to a few pages a day, read aloud, preferably to someone as crazy about Ondaatje as you are. Be disciplined. Don’t exceed your ration. It is a long voyage but it will go by too soon. So relish. Enjoy!

Abraham Verghese is the author of the internationally best-selling novel Cutting for Stone, which has been translated into 23 languages and spent over a year on the New York Times best-seller list. He is also the author of My Own Country, a 1994 NBCC Finalist and a Time Best Book of the Year, and The Tennis Partner, a New York Times Notable Book. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has published essays and short stories in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Granta, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. He is currently Professor and Senior Associate Chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University and lives in Palo Alto, California.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:22 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

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.… (more)

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