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Archive: Other Books > April Decathlon - The Cat's Table/Michael Ondaatje (4 and a half stars)

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message 1: by KateNZ (new)

KateNZ | 2667 comments Just in time!

April Decathlon The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje (4 and a half stars)

This has been on the TBR for a while as I have to be in the right frame of mind to make the most of Ondaatje's beautiful writing, but the decathlon challenge for this month gave me the nudge I needed to pick it up.

The book is framed by a real journey, when ten year old Michael was put on board the Oronsay in Colombo, Sri Lanka and sent, alone, on the three week sea voyage to England to meet up with his mother. But the rest, according to Ondaatje, is fiction. Not that you could tell - it mostly reads like a memoir, the story of a child freed from adult strictures and left to explore life, the strange world of adults, and the nature of friendship. Unlike our recent Sunday conversation topic (thanks Jason!) with this book you have to suspend belief - it is fiction that feels so believable that you expect to find references to various characters (the narrator's cousin Emily, his first wife Massi) against Ondaatje's name on Wikipedia...

As the lowliest on the ship, the narrator Michael is assigned to the Cat's Table - the table the furthest in the dining room from the Captain. With him are two other boys of his age: bold Cassius, always the rebel, always in trouble and who finds a willing partner in Michael; and gentle Ramadhin with his weak heart who has to be left out of some of the wilder adventures but whose actions are more pivotal to the book than anyone. The boys share the Cat's Table with a strange and glorious cast of characters; including a botanist with a garden in the hold, a teacher, doomed to failure in far away England, a woman with a mysterious connection to Whitehall who carries pigeons in her jacket, an uproarious jazz pianist who specialises in scandalous and delightfully age-inappropriate songs and stories and a silent tailor. The ship is also peopled with a Captain who is distinctly unimpressed with the boys' activities; Michael's card-playing and kennel-minding cabin mate, Mr Hastie; a dying philanthropist; Michael's theoretical Responsible Adult, a distant relation called Flavia who spends her days playing bridge for money and fleecing the other passengers; his older cousin Emily who has a special place in the story and in Michael's heart; a troupe of circus-style performers; and a murderer who is travelling to judgment in England and who is brought out of his ship's prison onto the deck at night and who the boys view with fascinated horror.

And many more - there are so many characters that your head would usually spin, but in a few short episodes and penstrokes, Ondaatje captures them all vividly. He has a special touch for showing characters at the margins of the action rather than the heroes and success stories of the world. Such a talent. And I love the way he writes with not a word wasted or out of place. There are elements of magical realism that feel as lifelike as the rest. He leaves space to breathe, not describing everything or everyone but leaving it to the reader to make of it what they will - a refreshing change from the 'spell it all out' stories that I usually read!

The only reason for the docked half star is that I got a bit lost with the switching timelines at the end of the book. It's a useful way of telling a story but I didn't quite manage to pull things together in my head by the end. Maybe I wasn't meant to - it's not like there is a grand denouement - and the fault is almost certainly in the reader rather than the artist here, but I finished the book with my head tilted on one side, going "And?"

message 2: by Susie (new)

Susie | 4488 comments Thanks for your review Kate. I have never read any of his books and had always planned on reading The English Patient, but this is another to add to the list.

message 3: by Booknblues (new)

Booknblues | 6863 comments I always enjoy Ondaatje's writing. This is one I was quite fond of.

I really loved The English Patient, Susie.

message 4: by Susie (new)

Susie | 4488 comments I adored the film so I’m hoping the book is even better!

message 5: by KateNZ (new)

KateNZ | 2667 comments The book is definitely better than the film :)

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