My rating: 5/5 stars
Release date: August 30, 2011
In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy boards a huge liner bound for England. At mealtimes, he is placed at the lowly “Cat’s Table” with an eccentric and unforgettable group of grownups and two other boys. As the ship makes its way across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, the boys find themselves immersed in the worlds and stories of the adults around them. At night they spy on a shackled prisoner — his crime and fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever.
With the ocean liner a brilliant microcosm for the floating dream of childhood, The Cat’s Table is a vivid, poignant and thrilling book, full of Ondaatje’s trademark set-pieces and breathtaking images: a story told with a child’s sense of wonder by a novelist at the very height of his powers.
Is there such thing as an earworm, for text instead of music? A wordworm? If so, I have had a wordworm, off and on, since finishing The Cat’s Table. I find myself mentally rereading the end this passage compulsively:
We stepped back, further into the darkness, and waited. I saw the man move the strap of her dress and bring his face down to her shoulder. Her head was back, looking up at the stars, if there were stars.
A quick Google search tells me I’m not alone. It’s an oft-quoted line. Blogger Jan Morrison says “If there were stars! If there were stars! If I wrote that one line, I’d be a satisfied writer. I would. It says everything.”
To me it’s a gorgeous, romantic image and a touching depiction of the narrator’s naivety giving way to the realization that the past is not only gone, but maybe it never really was, not the way you thought. And it’s something else I can’t explain – it’s poetry, I guess.
The Cat’s Table is difficult to categorize. It’s a slim 288 pages in paperback, and the short chapters mean many pages are half blank. But a lot is packed into those pages. The story meanders between the main action on the boat as 11-year-old Michael and his friends become increasingly embroiled in various shady dealings, and adult Michael’s reflections on memory and love.
Ondaatje isn’t one for a straightforward narrative. Some of the sections – a chapter about Michael’s failing marriage, a long-lost letter from one of the tablemates – seem out of place at first, like they’re part of a different story. It was only after reading and letting it sit for a while that it all came together for me.
My advice? Lay aside your expectations and just wallow in the beauty of this book. In the meantime, I’m seriously considering buying the audiobook version, read by the author, so I can hear him say “if there were stars.” So yeah, my crush continues.