Bookmarks Issue: 

A-The Cats Table.epsMichael Ondaatje received the Man Booker Prize for his 1992 novel The English Patient. He is also the author of Anil's Ghost (2000) and Divisadero (3 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2007).

The Story: In 1950, 11-year-old Michael, nicknamed "Mynah," heads from Sri Lanka to join his mother and start a new life in England. Michael Ondaatje comes from the same background, and there is no doubt that autobiography and the immigrant experience inform his novel. But the book's true subject is the journey--a three-week voyage on a cruiser liner containing 600 people from all walks of life. In Ondaatje's hands, a good fraction of those characters' stories are explored through the adventures Michael and his friends experience onboard. As we gradually come to realize that the adult Michael is telling the story, the novel's vignettes take on a greater significance in a book about how some rites of passage never really end.
Knopf. 288 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780307700117

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"The Cat's Table expertly strums these cords of autobiography without overdoing it. As a result this small, and beautifully minor book, vibrates with the borrowed intimacy of real life." John Freeman

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The Sri Lankan-born writer's sentences have a sonorous capacity, a soft but urgent tone that coaxes rather than demands attention. Acrobatics are eschewed for a supple, precise flexibility. It's a gift shared by other English-language writers who spent significant time surrounded by diverse tongues: E. M. Forster, for example, and Graham Greene." Tucker Shaw

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"The novel tells of a journey from childhood to the adult world, as well as a passage from the homeland to another country, something of a Dantean experience. The constriction of space intensifies a sense of allegory as a frame surrounds a painting." Annie Proulx

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Ondaatje teaches us that the most marvelous sights are those most often overlooked. It's a lesson that turns this supple story, like the meals at the cat's table, into a feast." Nick Owchar

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"As he did in his great 1992 novel, The English Patient, which won the Man Booker Prize and became an Academy Award-winning film, Ondaatje conjures images that pull strangers into the vivid rooms of his imagination, their detail illumined by his words." Liesl Schillinger

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Ondaatje never writes the same book twice. ... Ondaatje's vision, though dark, is unfailingly generous and humane." Maya Muir

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Ondaatje, who seems to create a new form of literary magic with each book, does something unexpected and rather wondrous with these materials, fashioning out of them a meditation on youth and age, memory and imagination, innocence and experience." Troy Jollimore

Telegraph (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"The Cat's Table deserves to be recognised for the beauty and poetry of its writing: pages that lull you with their carefully constructed rhythm, sailing you effortlessly from chapter to chapter and leaving you bereft when forced to disembark at the novel's end." Beth Jones

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The feline quality of Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table will appeal to anyone who wants to curl up with a playful novel that can bite." Ron Charles

Critical Summary

Reviewers almost universally praised The Cat's Table for its interesting structure and themes--physical danger, morality, memory, coming of age--as well as the sheer beauty of its characters and language. Ondaatje started out as a poet, and it shows. In particular, critics noted Ondaatje's skill for making each of his books wholly original. Superficially, The Cat's Table might seem to be a coming-of-age story or a piece of magical realism. But critics said that the subtle interplay between adult Michael's narrative voice and the happenings on the ship--a story that blurs the lines between memoir and fiction--brings out more fundamental themes of human memory and the ways in which we grow up, rarely all at once.