Reading Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel is a bit like settling in with a skilled raconteur as he pages unhurriedly through an old photo album. The novel is structured as a man’s reminiscences about what has turned out to be the defining event of his life: a three-week journey by steamship from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to England taken in 1954, when he was 11 years old. (Ondaatje, born in Sri Lanka, made a similar journey as a youth, although he has said the novel isn’t especially autobiographical.)
“This journey was to be an innocent story within the small parameter of my youth,” muses our narrator, Michael. “With just three or four children at its centre, on a voyage whose clear map and sure destination would suggest nothing to fear or unravel.” This, of course, is not the way the trip turns out.
The book’s title, The Cat’s Table, comes from a phrase describing the place in the dining room that is farthest from the captain’s table. Michael and two other boys his age are assigned to this table, along with a micro-community of traveling oddballs, and the story unfolds as the boy (and the reader) gets to know them. Even the minor characters have rich and surprising histories. One man maintains a lush garden hidden deep in the belly of the ship. One plays piano under a pseudonym. One never speaks at all and wears a bandana over his throat. And there’s a pale, wallflower-y woman who, the boys learn, is much more than meets the eye. Also on the ship are Michael’s cousin Emily, a sparkling beauty; several members of an acrobatic troupe; and a prisoner, an object of instant fascination for the boys. He’s said to have killed a judge, and is taken out each evening to walk the deck in his chains.
At first, the adult Michael’s reflections on his journey seem to meander: There are lots of gripping stories, but there isn’t immediately a clear story arc. It’s only much later in the book that you begin to understand how these recollections all fit together, and what a complex and thorough hold that brief journey had over everyone who took it.