Portal to the Pages

A quick glimpse into my thoughts on various fiction

The Cat’s Table – Michael Ondaatje

on March 15, 2013
Book cover of

The Cat’s Table

This is a book that I was quite looking forward to reading as it had received a lot of strong, positive feedback from numerous credible sources. It was also a present from my dad and, as I’ve mentioned before, he rarely steers me wrong.

Before I discuss my thoughts on the book, I’d like to briefly describe the setting of the story. It is told from the perspective of Michael, who is recounting an event that happened during his childhood. The event in question refers to his journey from Colombo, Sri Lanka to England on a large liner, which he completes with little to no adult supervision as his only companion is his teenage cousin. On board the liner, Michael meets two other boys in a similar situation to himself and together they get up to all kinds of mischief, both in their own secret world and the world of their fellow passengers. Later in the book, Michael also recounts some of the events that occurred after the journey was completed and many years passed.

If I were to sum up my thoughts and feelings about this book in one single phrase, it would simply be, “I don’t get it”. In my opinion, this is a mediocre book that doesn’t stand out in my mind as a classic or anything similar. I had numerous issues with the writing style, which I will soon detail, but overall I failed to connect with the book on anything remotely resembling a deeper level.

Throughout the story, Michael skips from retelling one event to another, without any structured sequence. This made it difficult to document the passing of time, despite the fact that the overall length of the ship journey was often referred to. I also found it quite jarring that right when I was beginning to get drawn into a particular character or event, I was yanked right out of that situation and given a new, completely different, event to read about. This didn’t just occur with the mixture of events from the journey and later in life, but also with disconnected events from the journey.

It is difficult to tell for definite, but I surmise that the author may have been trying to emulate the way the brain and one’s memory works. It is often the case that thinking about one event can spark something else off in the brain, but I felt that, if this was the aim, it did not translate well to paper.

On a side note, an unusual decision by the author was not to reveal the main character’s name until a few chapters into the book. I found this quite interesting, as it reinforced the concept that the boy’s nickname was much more important to him than his real name.

In general, I believe that the author was trying to use the journey on the ocean liner as a metaphor for childhood and all that goes with it; however I didn’t think that this rescued an otherwise dull book. For a significant number of chapters, I was beginning to wonder if anything of note was ever going to happen, as it felt like an account of a number of, unusual at best and mediocre at worst, disjointed occurrences.

Overall, this was not a terrible book or anything like it, I was just disappointed that I found my mind wandering when I read it and almost had to force myself to concentrate. The latter part of the book was definitely much stronger than the former, especially as more events from Michael’s adult life were described. Again, this may have been to highlight the difference between childhood and adulthood, but it came as too little, too late. Unfortunately, in my opinion, this amounted to a forgettable book.




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