Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Books before I'm 30: The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

[Reviewing several books over a few days as I read a few on holiday!]

For quite a while in this book I was having trouble determining if this book was autobiographical or fictional. Several of the events that occur are deeply implausible, and have a certain lyricism that would be very neat for real life, but the plotless, somewhat aimless structure of the book as a series of stories of events on a boat seem to indicate someone telling the story of their life.

Reading the notes at the end gives some enlightenment: while the author did go on a similar journey in his youth, most of the details were utterly fictional. So there we go. The Cat's Table is a first person narrative following a young boys 3 week journey from Colombo in Sri Lanka to England, where his mother, who he has not seen for a very long time, awaits him. He is sat on the "Cat's table", at dinner, the one furthest from the Captains, with other non-persons, including two other boys similarly lacking parental guardianship. Together they explore the ship, meet other people, and generally go on adventures.

Its a well written book, and there are engaging passages, but I found myself failing to connect with this. This has mostly to due with the plotless nature of the book: at least initially all we have are a series of anecdotes where the young author is just having fun. There is no real sense of peril, or even any conflict: he seems to just mostly enjoy himself, which is fine, but not terribly engaging.

There are later passages which connect: tales of his relationship with one of the trio as an adult, and his early passing, are striking and somewhat moving, but they are soon there and gone. What plot the book has only emerges late in the book, and doesn't actually connect to the main characters story at all: it involves mostly background characters, and comes across as remarkably implausible.

I might try another book by Ondaatje at some point: this one was picked primarily due to its availablility than any other metric, so I might have more success with other books by him, but this one didn't really strike a chord.

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