A Young Man Comes of Age on a Sea Voyage
The Cat's Table
By Michael Ondaatje
BY KATRINA DENZA
Special to The Pilot
There's a quiet elegance to Michael Ondaatje's writing that appeals to me.
It's as if I'm being invited to hear an intimate, portentous story from a wise and well-traveled uncle. His prose is without artifice, clear and straightforward, even if his structure is not.
But that's also fun: discovering how everything in his non-linear, often spiraling plots will suddenly come together near the end.
His latest novel, "The Cat's Table," isn't as meandering as some of his previous works, though Ondaatje does move his characters freely through time.
In his author's note, he makes it clear that the novel is fiction, though it reads like a memoir, and the narrator is a writer whose name also happens to be Michael.
The narrator is looking back to the 1950s, the time in which he was sent by boat from Ceylon to England to be with a mother he hadn't seen in three years.
As intriguing as it is to imagine how it must have been for the boy to spend three years in a country without his mother, the book isn't about that, but rather, it's part coming-of-age, part adventure story, the journey from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic serving as an apt if somewhat obvious metaphor.
While on board, young Michael meets and befriends several characters who are expected to dine at the Cat's Table with him, the table farthest away from the Captain's Table in both a literal sense and a social one.
Two boys around his own age, one older and daring, the other shy and asthmatic, become his closest friends.
Among the passengers, there's a wealthy philanthropist who's been saddled with a curse, a surprising thief, a violinist who rarely leaves her room, an aunt in first class who occasionally plays the role of guardian when it suits her, a mysterious female cousin, and a shackled prisoner whose reputation for escape has his guards on edge.
The narrator gets into the kind of trouble one would expect from an intelligent, curious 11-year-old on his own, but Ondaatje takes the reader beyond the narrator's journey by boat to something larger: how those experiences have shaped Michael's adult perspective.
The Cat's Table" is a thoughtful and enjoyable read.
Katrina Denza's stories have been published in several literary journals, and recently, she was awarded a Carol Houck Smith Contributor Scholarship for the 2011 Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.
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