The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje is a compelling novel about boyhood and the transition that takes place as an innocent child witnesses the realities of adult life. The novel follows the journey of a young boy named Michael, as he spends three weeks at sea, travelling from his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka to his new life in London, England.
Although Ondaatje makes it clear that the novel is fictional, it is difficult to separate Ondaatje’s own life story from the protagonist’s. Ondaatje is Sri Lankan and at the age of 12, travelled by ship to England for schooling before moving to Canada later in life. This is a geographical journey almost identical to that of Michael’s, however, it is impossible to know whether the eccentric characters that Michael meets and befriends whilst aboard The Oronsay, are based on Ondaatje’s own interactions.
The detailed account is told in first person, from Michael’s boyhood perspective which forces the reader to see what may have otherwise been a monotonous journey, as an exciting adventure with endless opportunities to explore. Michael exudes curiosity which is more than often satisfied with the help of his two comrades, Cassius and Ramadhin, two other Sri Lankan boys who are also travelling without parent supervision. Together, the three boys discover un-ventured nooks of the vessel, witness secret relationships blossom and cause more mischief than they themselves expect. Several times throughout the novel, I questioned how three boys could do so much, see so much and become close to so many people in just three weeks. But it’s all apart of the magic of The Oronsay and the unlimited possibility that comes with childhood freedom.
The title, The Cat’s Table refers to the dining table which the three boys are placed at to eat their meals each day whilst aboard the ship. The table is the furthest from the Captain’s table, “the least privileged place”. However, as the story unfolds, we learn that the people at the Cat’s Table are more than they first appear, and many become central figures in many misadventures aboard the ship.
Although not a simple novel thematically, it is a relatively easy read. The sense of freedom Michael feels during his time on The Oronsay is projected through the pages and allows the reader to feel the same sense of escapism as they join him on his adventures. Ondaatje constantly draws you back into the microcosmic world.
Ondaatje writes characters that are intriguing, multi-faceted and never stereotypical. His characters are fully formed and fledged humans with wants, fears and secrets: much of which come unravelled and revealed during their time on The Oronsay, or realised by Michael later in life when he reviews his time aboard the ship through adult eyes.
Ondaatje paints a portrait of the hope we have as children for an exciting and unpredictable future. The Cat’s Table is must read for anyone who wishes to be inspired to live a life of adventure.