Saturday, October 27, 2012
Author: Michael Ondaatje
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible for iTunes
Books I've read this year: 111
The first two times I tried to listen to The Cat's Table I gave up in frustration. I had forgotten that Michael Ondaatje is not an author whose work I can listen to while the kids are talking to me or I'm multitasking. This ended up being a book that I great to appreciate only when I was listening to it out running by myself. I think part of this is because Ondaatje narrates the book himself. I've been to one of his readings, and while he has a lovely voice, it's also a little bit quiet and mumbly, and I remember wondering during his reading if he read like that because it forced his readers to really give themselves over to listening. When I did give myself over to listening to The Cat's Table, I finally found the experience rewarding.
The bulk of The Cat's Table takes place in 1952 on a journey from Sri Lanka to London. The eleven-year-old protagonist, Michael, his cousin, and several friends are all seated with an assortment of colorful characters at what they call "The Cat's Table," the one furthest, in both physical and psychic distance, from the captain's table on their ship. At first, the book seems to be a collection of spotlights on the characters at the table, interwoven with some travel narration. The boys find themselves in scrapes, the older passengers sleep together, steal, and spy on each other. But eventually, the book seems to turn into a bit of a mystery-- who is the prisoner in chains on the ship? Will he escape? What fallout will result? In the second half Ondaatje turns to the fallout in Michael's life after the journey as well.
One of the most unsettling aspects of The Cat's Table is the faux-memoir nature of the book. Like Ondaatje, the character was 11 in 1952, like Ondaatje the character moved from Colombo to London by ship, like Ondaatje the character was named Michael and grew up to be a writer living in Canada. But the book calls itself "a novel" and other biographical details do not hold. I'm sure it was some kind of artistic experiment, but as a Wikipedia-fingers kind of girl, it also bugged a little bit.