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The Cat's Table (2011)

by Michael Ondaatje

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
2,2401295,581 (3.71)328
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)
  1. 20
    Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter (Limelite)
    Limelite: One believes "The Cat's Table" is a nod to this classic exploration of morals and morays involving exiles and Nazis on a trans-Atlantic voyage from South America to Europe.
  2. 10
    Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier (Cecilturtle)
    Cecilturtle: coming of age
  3. 00
    Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: Post-Colonial Novels
  4. 00
    The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow (tandah)
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English (128)  Spanish (1)  All languages (129)
Showing 1-5 of 128 (next | show all)
It held my interest throughout, but I listened to the audiobook, and the reader's voice seemed almost uninterested at times, like he'd read it too many times. I liked the back and forth (ship & later) and the writing was good. It just didn't get me really engaged. ( )
  Wren73 | Mar 4, 2022 |
This book is a literary .zip file. You know the files that you press "execute" or "unzip" and the small file unfolds itself over and over until it becomes a much larger file? This rather small book (my edition said 280 some odd pages) is like that. What starts as a small story about a three week voyage from India to England for a group of children, describing their adventures and the interesting people and situations that they encounter unfolds and expands into depths that most writers could not reach in 1,000 pages. Thoughtful, passionate, heart-breaking, hilarious and thrilling. This story tells of a time not so long ago yet long gone; peers through a key hole into exotic lands and evesdrops on the nefarious as well as the mundane; and in the process tells a story that is fully of mystery and menace, humor and deep emotion. There are few writers who can take the reader into another world like Ondaatje can. He is a master. ( )
  ChrisMcCaffrey | Apr 6, 2021 |
A wonderful story, expertly told. ( )
  heggiep | Mar 24, 2021 |
I know this is a good book. It has depth and well-developed characters, and good pacing.

For me it was a cryptic read. I understood a fraction of what was going on; not nearly enough. I wasn't certain that things I read had happened actually occurred. One reason, certainly, is that the narrator is an 11-year old boy on a 3-week trip from Sri Lanka to England. He and his 2 friends watch, listen, and learn from the adults on the ship with them. Of course, the 11-year old and his friends couldn't fully comprehend what they witnessed or heard from Emily, the shackled prisoner, Miss Lasqueti, or the many others. In a way, I resented that I felt it was my 'responsibility' to read between the lines and interpret the nuances.

Because it was well-written I stayed with it, hoping in the end it would all make sense.

I did enjoy reading of the drama of the brutal squall the ship experienced in which 2 of the boys placed themselves in danger, and the ship's slow and careful passage through the Suez Canal.

I just wish I didn't feel like an 11-year old who missed something fun and mysterious the 'adults' had done.
  Bookish59 | Jan 7, 2021 |
A book that seemed very disjointed while reading with extremely short chapters yet the author did end up putting most of the loose ends together by the end. It was easy to understand the 3 boys fascination and fun of exploring an ocean ship and figuring out the stories about the various passengers personal lives. My favorite escapade was the idea of tying themselves onto the deck during the storm. ( )
  kshydog | Dec 13, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 128 (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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Epigraph
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"
Dedication
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.
Quotations
“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."
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Wikipedia in English (2)

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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