Michael Ondaatje (author of “The English Patient”), has a distinctively unique style to his writing. His literary voice could best be described as poetic and fluid that is also highly accessible. This comes through in all his writing, giving his work a deceptively simplistic feel, while remaining evocatively beautiful. However, he also likes to surprise his readers in the way he constructs his books, and each one is a bit different from his others. For instance, his last two novels, “Anil’s Ghost” and “Divisadero”, are almost conventionally structured. But others of his works, his latest novel included, are put together more like series of vignettes with lines of disjointed dialogue or poetry, not all of which follow a direct timeline. While this may sound like it could be confusing, Ondaatje’s artistry is in that the reader never feels like they aren’t totally sure of when and where the action is taking place. And this he does with the language alone, without any superfluous background information or details.
His latest novel is narrated by Michael, an 11-year old boy, traveling on the ocean liner The Oronsays, from his birthplace in Sri Lanka to rejoin his mother in London in the early 1950s. On board he finds two other boys his age – the brash and bold Cassius and Ramadhin, the delicate boy with a heart condition. For their meals these three are all seated at the lowliest of tables on the ship – known as The Cat’s Table. The voyage will take three weeks, giving them more than enough time to have many adventures and forge life-long friendships. These boys, along with a mixed group of very colorful adult travelers turn their voyage into both an education and an adventure.
Apparently in those days, it wasn’t uncommon for boys to travel like this unaccompanied. Of course, there is one adult passenger to keep an eye on him – an acquaintance of his uncle’s – Flavia Prins – traveling in first class. And not long after the journey begins, he finds a distant, but older cousin of his on board – Emily. Along with these two women, we get a slew of characters that all touch the lives of these boys in different ways. And since these youngsters wear their innocent curiosity on their sleeves, those they come in contact with aren’t confined to passengers. The reader then becomes acquainted with a conglomeration of characters from the ailing millionaire in first class, right down to the dangerous prisoner being transported for trial and many more in between – including workers both on the ship and the shores they come to. Combine this with the vignette composition of the book, tied together with the boys’ investigations, and you end up with a kaleidoscope view of this vessel and voyage, which progresses in chronological order.
Within all this we also get more recent events interspersed from our narrator as he tells this tale as a type of autobiography of a very unique experience and the effect it had on his later life. This means that he also includes key events that happened after long after his arrival in England, which would never have been had he not taken that particular ship on that specific sailing. In essence, he shows the reader how that trip molded both his personality and his life. It is interesting to note that Ondaatje actually had a voyage very much like this in his real life. He was born in Sri Lanka (which was Ceylon at the time), and he did sail to England at that age. Ondaatje puts even more of his life in this story, by naming the narrator after himself as well as having him become a writer as an adult who moves to Canada. And while that is where (according to the author’s notes) the similarities end, the deeply personal feel of this book is ultimately obvious.
With all this included, one might assume that this is some sweeping saga of a novel that goes on for hundreds of chapters. But this is where the real surprise is, since Ondaatje does all this in less than 300 pages of nicely spaced lines printed in a clear, normal-sized font. So while the scope of this book seems vast, the economy of the prose along with the careful use of suggestive language is what makes this into a cohesive piece that the reader will both literally and figuratively sail through.
In short, Ondaatje’s novel The Cat’s Table” is constructed masterfully with deceptively simple prose style that almost makes the reader smell the salt air. The story has a very intimate feel to it which makes the characters feel real and alive, that borders on being an autobiography and not a fictional memoire. Moreover, the age and innocence of this young boy and his new friends makes the adventures and troubles they get into on the ship totally believable. This is arguably Ondaatje’s best work since “The English Patient”, in both style and content, and is highly recommended.
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