Well, I liked this better than In the Skin of a Lion. Michael Ondaatje doesn’t quite terminate quotation marks with extreme prejudice in The Cat’s Table, and the story is more straightforward. Call me boring, but I like that.
The protagonist is also named Michael, and certain elements of the plot are apparently autobiographical (but only just). Michael is eleven years old and travelling from Sri Lanka to England, where he will live with his mother and attend a nice school. He’s travelling alone on the ship Oronsay, but he befriends two boys his age. Together, they have the run of the place, get into adventures that find them or adventures of their own making, and generally have a good time during a period that seems timeless. In between these episodes, Ondaatje weaves hints and scenes from Michael’s adult life, including his relationship with his cousin Emily.
I liked reading about the shenanigans that Michael and his friends get up to. It was charming and funny in that wistful, semi-nostalgic kind of way. The atmosphere Ondaatje describes will be familiar to anyone who was a child for at least one or two summers, no matter how long ago. The days and nights merge together into a single, seamless expanse during which anything might be possible. You find your allies, stake your claims, erect your forts, and fight your battles. It’s an interesting time, and Ondaatje captures a lot of that excitement, albeit in the more interesting, magical setting of a voyage across the ocean!
And now comes the difficult part of the review, the part where I discover I don’t have much to say. The Cat’s Table is good? I liked it? I don’t know. And that, in itself, should be a sign of trouble. It took me a while to pinpoint why I can’t love this book, but I think I have it: there is a curious dearth of conflict.
Despite the fact that the book is kind of a flashback, Michael seldom editorializes his younger self. He doesn’t really pass judgement on incidents such as his complicity in the Baron’s robbery—things just happened, and he was a part of them. Young Michael makes choices, does good things and bad things, but they are just a part of his life. Does he regret anything? The characters around him certainly do, but I don’t get the sense that he does. The characters around him—Emily, the prisoner, Miss. Lasqueti … they have conflicts. Yet Michael, occasionally a participant and occasionally an observer, always seems to pass by.
Even once we get glimpses of his adult life, any sense of conflict is implicit rather than there on the page. He marries Ramadhin’s sister and then later divorces her—fine, but why? Where are the scenes of romance, of recrimination, of resignation? We only get the structure of the thing and none of its content: a skeleton of a story instead of the story itself. As one might expect from Ondaatje, the descriptions in The Cat’s Table are complicated and exquisite. The story is another matter.
So that’s where I’m at. No intense analysis, no long-winded review. It was a book that was pleasant enough to read, but I’m left distinctly underwhelmed. There was no reason for me to identify with the protagonist, to feel concern for his wellbeing or his tribulations, because it doesn’t seem like he had that many. The Cat’s Table has beautiful prose, but that only distracts for so long from deeper issues that make it more difficult to love.