The Cat’s Table is the story of 11-year-old Michael who is traveling from his father’s home in 1950s Ceylon due to a threat to his or his father’s safety, to live with his mother and attend school in England. The departure from Colombo is both sad and exciting.
Michael’s two on-board acquaintances, both also 11 years old and also bound for school in England, are tough-boy Cassius and the more studious Ramadhin. The trio is infected by their fellow passengers’ curiosity about all of the ships’ passengers. Unhindered by close adult supervision the trio explores the ship while closely observing (spying on) passengers. The three weeks of observations become their extended lesson on how to be adults. Michael’s distant cousin, Emily, helps him to manage his growing anxiety while aboard, as he nears England and his new life and a first-class passenger, Flavia Prins, whose husband is an acquaintance of Michael’s uncle, keeps a slight watch over him, while also serving the trio as their primary source of on-board gossip.
The fellow-passengers are the story’s entertainment and the boys’ lessons in life and adulthood. Miss Lasqueti keeps pigeons and wears a vest of pockets for her birds. Asuntha is a recluse who protects a fatal secret. Sir Hector de Silva lies in his cabin dying because of a curse. Mr Fonseka is an eccentric teacher and a recluse who is protected by his books. Mr Daniels tends his garden of exotic plants in the ship’s hold. Max Mazappa is a jazz musician who is down on his luck and who attracts the amorous attention of Miss Lasqueti, but disembarks when the ship is in Port Said. A rollerskating Australian girl appeals to the boys, but also frightens them. And most-exciting of all is the guarded and bound prisoner who can be seen exercising on deck late in the night. The boys are desperate to know what his crimes were and eventually learn that he is associated with some of the passengers.
Ondaatje writes so beautifully well, at an easy pace, and with a deft ability to paint a vivid scene that I could read all of his books repeatedly (and have done so).
The Cat’s Table might well be his best work, in my opinion. I enjoyed every page and read it slowly, like it was a fine cup of coffee – one sip, one page, at a time.
Shortly after reading The Cat’s Table I was fortunate to stay in the hotel described in the book’s first chapters, overlooking Colombo’s passenger ship terminal – a most evocative experience. And the coffee at the cafe through the back of the Barefoot shop…, well…, I’ll write separately about that.