In the 1950's, an eleven-year-old boy boards an ocean liner in Sri Lanka, bound for England. At mealtimes he finds himself placed at the "Cat's Table," furthest away from the Captain's table and designated for the least of the passengers. At the table he is surrounded by an eccentric group of characters including two other young boys. As the ship makes its way through open waters and port cities the three boys find themselves immersed in the lives of the others who inhabit the ship. And it is at night as the boys slink around the ship that they discover the most fascinating inhabitant of the ship - a shackled prisoner whose crime and fate are a mystery that will stay with them forever.
The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje, has been long-listed for the 2011 Giller Prize and rightfully so. It alternates between the childhood and adult life of the narrator, eleven-year-old Michael, and weaves an incredible tale about childhood discovery and the knowledge and understanding of the truth of the world that often can only come from its lowliest position.
Ondaatje is a fantastic writer, there is no doubt about that. The book begins with the set-up of the quirky characters aboard the Oronsay and the three young boys who are thrust into their world. It then moves on to they boys' adult life as it looks back on the journey and the lasting effects it had on their lives. In the end, the story returns to the ship to show how everything comes together and to reveal the mystery of the shackled prisoner.
I'll admit, I had a lot of trouble getting through the middle part. Not because of the writing but something just wasn't holding my interest. I wanted to get back to the ship, back to the mash-up of interesting characters and the mysteries that surrounded them. And when the book finally did I was instantly wrapped up in it again.
I have only read one of Ondaatje's previous works, In the Skin of a Lion, and it quickly became one of my favourite Canadian novels. From what I have read by others, The Cat's Table is one of Ondaatje's more approachable novels. Its fictional memoir feel makes it easily readable. If you're new to Ondaatje's work it sounds like this might be a great place to start. I wouldn't be surprised to see this on the Giller shortlist.