The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

The Cat's Table

My rating: 5/5 stars

Release date: August 30, 2011

Publisher: McLelland


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. 



  1. Rick MacDonnell

    The Cat’s Table is a really good example for me of how much a reader’s reaction to a book can be a product of “right here, right now.” I’m not sure I was in the right headspace for The Cat’s Table. I was in a quick-read mood at the time … the absolute worst frame of mind for an Ondaatje book. As a result, it was a 3/5 book for me.

    Makes me wonder about how many books I misjudged over the years. Might make for an interesting re-read challenge.

    Do you have any books you’re almost certainly you’d like better a second time around?

    • lauratfrey

      The English Patient is #1 on my “need to reread” list, thought I never finished it. There are a bunch of books I read when I was too young. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and The Corrections come to mind. I’m sure there are others and I would like to do this too… when I have time 🙂

    • Brie @ Eat Books

      I think frame of mind makes a HUGE difference in how we feel about the books we read. For everyone. I also think my reaction to a book that I ended up reading in little chunks (due to time available to read, constant interruptions, etc), provides a different experience than had I read the book in longer sittings. Which is why I always very carefully choose my books for long flights! (Also, I have actually re-read a few books that I read when I was younger and in those instances, I’ve liked the book less. Which is a bit disappointing. It also made me think I would rather have kept the memory of loving the book then the experience of re-reading it…so that’s something I now really consider when I think about re-reading an old favourite :))

      ANYWAY…(to get back to the main post), I very much agree with the “Lay aside your expectations and just wallow in the beauty of this book” line. Beautiful books, which I often find are character driven instead of plot driven, are very difficult to “critique” because it’s all about the experience while reading said book. And sometimes my favourite books are the hardest ones to explain why.

      • lauratfrey

        I am scared to reread some books for that very reason!

        Yep, I had a hard time figuring out what to say about this book, until I did a Google search on that one quote and realized it was something that resonated with lots of people. Good, 5-star reviews are hard to write.

        Brie, when are you going to read it? After Harry Potter and Moby Dick? 🙂

      • Brie @ Eat Books

        Oh god. I am so overwhelmed with the books I’m still in the process of reading vs the books I WANT to read. And don’t even get me started on the back-log of posts I have to finish writing up! Lol. I’m putting HP on the back-burner so I can focus on Moby Dick and a few other upcoming bookclub books!

    • lauratfrey

      Haha no. I think a few of my brain cells are regenerating, allowing me to multi task again, that’s all. That, and not watching TV any more. If I ever get off Twitter, I’ll be unstoppable.

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  3. Kristilyn

    I don’t think I gave this one a great review because I don’t think I “got” it. But now that I think about it, I think I was expecting more of a message, or something, what with it being a highly praised novel. It would be interesting to revisit it and see my thoughts now.

    Great review, Laura!

    • lauratfrey

      Yeah, expectations are huge, for any book. Based on hearing the author talk about it, my expectations were tempered… I was expecting something about friendship and memory and growing up, and that’s pretty much what I got. The marketing on this book was a little weird.

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