Back in June I featured Mirko Bonné’s 2013 novel The Ice-Cold Heaven: A Novel because it’s set in Antarctica, and therefore eligible to be counted as part of the “seventh continent” portion of Kerrie’s Global Reading Challenge. Fortunately, to make things a bit easier for the challenge participants she’s broadened the concept of the seventh content to include ”the sea, the space, a supernatural/paranormal world, history, the future-you name it.” That works rather nicely for me. But what to next read as part of that seventh continent? Then, last week at the public library I had my answer. For the second time this summer I came across a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s 2011 novel The Cat’s Table. I was a bit hesitant to take a chance on it because I’ve had mixed results with Ondaatje. I loved The English Patient. However, Anil’s Ghost, not so much. But after noticing The Cat’s Table is a novel about a sea voyage a little lightbulb in my head suddenly went off. I could classify its setting as “international waters” and include it as one of my submissions the seventh continent. So, with that in mind I grabbed it.
OK, so it counts for my reading challenge but how was it? Thankfully, it’s no Anil’s Ghost. But it ain’t The English Patient either. But who cares. I enjoyed it
The Cat’s Table is the story of an 11-year-old Ceylonese boy, who along with two of his young countrymen, dine each evening at the “cat’s table” during a three-week sea journey from Colombo to London. Designated as a table reserved for social misfits, eccentrics and potentially troublesome lower-class children, the cat’s table serves as a kind of quarantine for any passengers not worthy of being near the Captain’s table and his esteemed guests. (Remember that scene in the movie Animal House when they exile Mohammad, Jugdish and company to the far corner during that snooty fraternity party?) Of course, just like any high school cafeteria that uncool table is where the truly interesting and memorable people eat. At this table our young traveler gets a world-class education as he rubs elbows with a vagabond musician, a British spinster and a small cast of somewhat mysterious but incredibly fascinating passengers. When not dining with this band of misfits he and his young buddies run roughshod over the ship, secretly spying on passengers, exploring the off-limits bowels of the ship and causing general mayhem.
I enjoyed The Cat’s Table for several reasons. One, it combined two few elements I’ve always enjoyed in a piece of fiction or memoir: coming of age and encountering class/racial barriers. In addition, with the novel told in the first person, you see the world through the eyes of an innocent, but with an innocence that is slowly but surely fading away. Being it’s told from the vantage point of a middle age man looking back after a half century makes that loss of innocence feel even more poignant.
Like I said, I enjoyed The Cat’s Table and as a result it’s rekindled my interest in Michael Ondaatje. I’d be willing to read more of his novels. Just don’t make me read Anil’s Ghost again.