Michael Ondaatje – Double Feature

It took me a lot longer than expected to finish Michael Ondaatje’s newest book The Cat’s Table. But I am finally done and ready to let you know my impression of the book.

Seeing as I was already writing about one of Michael Ondaatje’s books, I thought would write about one of my favourites that he has written–In the Skin of a Lion.

The Cat’s Table is a story about a young boy named Michael, who has set sail on the Oronsay, a passenger ship going between Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and London in 1954. He is travelling to London to live with his mother, who migrated there four years earlier.

The first half of the novel is a straightforward narrative, Ondaatje’s most uncomplicated narrative ever, as Michael and his friends explore the ship and learn from their experiences. At the midpoint of the novel, however, Michael, as narrator, begins to move forward and back in time, telling about his life years later in London, then moving backward as he remembers an event from 1954, which may have been a key learning experience only partially explicated in the narrative up to that point, then moving forward still further to the years when he is in his thirties, then backing up again to the events on the ship which foreshadowed his later life.

I felt that the transition between time periods was not fluid, and it was hard to tell what era Michael was in. But this could have been my fault. I was sporadically picking up this book, and reading a few pages at a time, which could have been the reason behind my confusion.

The overall story felt very authentic. Almost like Ondaatje was basing this off a true life experience.

In the dining room after departure, he sits at the “cat’s table,” the lowest-status table, quickly befriending two other children his own age, both also leaving for school in London. Cassius, a year ahead of him at his previous school and a notorious mischief-maker, and Ramadhin, a gentle soul who suffers from both asthma and heart problems, quickly become his inseparable companions. Also at the table are a variety of “exotic” adults representing an assortment of professions, none of them socially “noticeable” – among them a “ship dismantler” who salvages old ships, the manager of the ship’s kennel, a pianist who plays with the band, a young botanist, and a woman who is transporting twenty or thirty pigeons, some of which she carries close to her in a specially designed coat.

I felt this novel to be very character driven instead of plot driven. Michael, comes to meet all these interesting people on the ship, and we learn about their lives before and after the Oronsay, but I felt like there was no purpose. What are these characters  function in this tale? What was the meaning behind the entire story? I constantly felt like I was waiting for something to happen. It wasn’t until the last 40 pages that I became intrigued with the tale. It was if the last 220 pages were just a lead up to this point, a very slow lead up, but a lead up nonetheless.

On the journey, during which they survive storms and all manner of other unusual events, Michael and his friends learn about life by observing what happens around them, sometimes unwittingly creating events which have long-term consequences for others and becoming involved in mysteries they do not understand. They delight in using one of the lifeboats to overhear conversations and observe life at its most basic. As Michael notes, “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.” The boys stay up all night, use the first-class swimming pool early in the morning, and eat the first class food (hiding in lifeboats to eat it). They observe love affairs blooming, a man who is dying and who must get to London before it is too late, and a prisoner arrested for murder who is exercised on deck only late at night. “We came to understand [a] small and important thing – that our lives could be large with interesting strangers who would pass us without any personal involvement.”

Maybe this story was too real. I have been on a couple cruises myself–I know Princess Cruises and the Oronsay are not comparable– but the everyday happenings on a ship, usually consist of trying to fill time till you get off the boat, and that is definitely what was going on here. It felt like I was reading a reality show about three preteen boys on a ship, without supervision and what they got up to in three weeks.

I really tried to give this book a fair shot, because I am a fan of Ondaatje, but this was a miss for me.

On the other hand Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion is on of my favourite historical fictions. This story is based around the construction of the Bloor-Danforth viaduct in the new world of Toronto in the 20’s and 30’s.

I have family that have lived in the Danforth area for at least 60 years, and I have been visiting them my whole life. I have seen the progression that has occurred over the years, and to read about a story–even though it is fictitious–got my heart-strings in a bunch. Just because the immigrants portrayed in the novel never really existed. There is some truth behind it all. Immigrants were behind the creation of the Bloor-Danforth viaduct, and parts of these stories could have been true.

Michael Ondaatje entwines adventure, romance and history, real and invented, enmeshing us in the lives of the immigrants who built the city and those who dreamed it into being: the politically powerful, the anarchists, bridge builders and tunnellers, a vanished millionaire and his mistress, a rescued nun and a thief who leads a charmed life. This hunting tale of passion, privilege and biting physical labour, of men and women moved by compassion and driven by the power of dreams–sometimes even murder.

Is there is anything this story is missing? I think not! And for my fellow Torontonians, this is a must read! While reading this novel, I could see exactly in my mind the roads the characters were walking–as if Google Maps was playing in my head. After I completed the book, I felt almost closer to the city I once called home.


(Quotes from Seeing the World Through Books)


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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction

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