The Cat's Table, Paperback Book
4.5 out of 5 (1 rating)


'What had there been before such a ship in my life?

A dugout canoe on a river journey? A launch in Trincomalee harbour? There were always fishing boats on our horizon. But I could never imagine the grandeur of this castle that was to cross the sea'. In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy boards a huge liner in Colombo bound for England.

At mealtimes he is seated at the lowly 'cat's table' - as far from the Captain's table as can be - with a ragtag group of adults and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin.

As the ship crosses the Indian Ocean the boys tumble from one adventure to another,and at night they spy on a shackled prisoner - his crime and fate a mystery that will haunt them forever...


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My only previous experience of Ondaatje's work was his Booker Prize winner, "The English Patient", and my principal response to the title character had been, "Please just die!"Consequently I was unsure what to expect with this book. I very quickly realised that I had nothing to worry about. This is a fascinating story about the adventures that three boys experienced travelling from their native Sri Lanka (though it was still called Ceylon then) to England in 1954.The "cat's table" was name given to the table furthest from the Captain's Table to which the three unaccompanied boys were assigned for their meals, along with various "socially challenged" adyults. Michael, the narrator, is eleven years old and is travelling to England to stay with his mother (divorced from his father three or fours years earlier) and then to undergo an English education. He becomes friendly with two other boys in a similar position: Cassius, aged twelve, who is almost feral and has already been suspended from his Sri Lankan school a few times, and Ramadhin, an asthmatic Moslem boy whose frail health curtails his capacity to join in with all the others' exploits.Ondaatje captures the sense of adventure and mischief perfectly (despite his disclaimer in the "Author's Note" at the end of the book it is difficult wholly to believe that this is not at least partially autobiographical). The personalities of the adult characters are revelaed gradually, and the readers sees things that the young Michael doesn't, though this only adds to the savour.Among other sources of wonder that the boys quickly discover are a prisoner, who is kept manacled all of the time and whose only exercise come from being allowed to walk around the decks at night, under armed supervision, and a circus troupe who revel in bizarre entertainments. All in all this was one of the finest rites of passage novels I have read.

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