For this blog post, I’m going to try a little something different…I will not be providing a rating score for the latest novel I read (you’re shocked, I know!!). My reasoning behind this decision is my own personal inability to award or deduct points with any accuracy in this specific circumstance.
(Let me explain…)
About a year ago, I joined the Evening Book Club at my local library, and I have been attending meetings on and off (depending on my work schedule) throughout the year. The novels that the Book Club reads are chosen arbitrarily by a librarian and discussed once a month in a seminar-like setting. The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje was the most recent Book Club novel and was the cause of much discord and controversy within the group discussion. Michael Ondaatje is both a novelist and a poet, and is the author of the best selling novel, The English Patient (which was also adapted into a film). In The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje highlights the three-week sea voyage of an eleven-year-old boy named Michael from Colombo, Sri Lanka to England. Although the novel is fictitious, it is not hard to imagine that parallels exist between the narrator and the author, who is also a Sri Lankan native that immigrated to England in childhood.
Essentially, The Cat’s Table is a coming of age story. Within the novel, the narrator details his adventures with his two friends, Ramadhin and Cassius, ranging from petty theft to interactions with a variety of characters that occupy the “adult world” on the boat. The Cat’s Table frequently vacillates between the past and the present, allowing the audience to understand how a three-week journey to England has impacted and affected nearly every aspect of life for the narrator, Michael.
I enjoyed this novel, but did not love it. For me, it was a fast and easy read; and I would most likely be recommending it on this blog were it not for the comments of my other “book clubbers.” I was very shocked to walk into a book club discussion only to discover that I was the ONLY person in the room who enjoyed reading The Cat’s Table. (Mind you, the average age of every member in the Book Club, excluding myself, is well above 70…) Comments from my library book buddies ran the gamut from lukewarm sentiments to complete animosity. A few drew a parallel between reading The Cat’s Table and a homework assignment, and a couple refused to keep reading before they even reached the halfway mark (…tough crowd!).
The only thing that was agreed upon during the Evening Book Club discussion was Michael Ondaatje’s marvelous writing style. One woman described Ondaatje’s prose as poetic, and I most certainly agree. Oftentimes, the alternation between the past and the present narration reminded me of the ebb and flow of the ocean, and the constant swaying of a boat. The writing was moving, profound and authentic without veering into the land of pretentious. For example, early on in the novel, Michael introduces the audience to Mr. Nevil, a former ship dismantler on the boat leaving Colombo; Michael describes: “Now he was sitting with me, remembering the harbours he had inhabited at one time or another, rolling a piece of blue chalk in his fingers, suddenly meditative. It was, he murmured, a dangerous profession, of course. And it was painful to realize that nothing was permanent, not even an ocean liner…He had been there to help dismantle the Normandie- ‘the most beautiful ship ever built’- as it lay charred and half drowned in the Hudson River in America. ‘But somehow even that was beautiful…because in a breaker’s yard you discover anything can have a new life, be reborn as part of a car or railway carriage, or a shovel blade. You can take that older life and you link it to a stranger.’” (72) This passage in particular is not just beautiful in sentiment, but is especially meaningful within the context of the novel. Michael, on a journey to a new life, much like a dismantled ship, must take the pieces and experiences of his childhood and mesh them together with his newfound adulthood in order to create and define himself in a new environment.
The two biggest sources of controversy within our book club discussion were the ending of the novel (which I refuse to spoil in this blog!) and the narration. Many negative comments were made about the composition of The Cat’s Table. The entirety of the “book clubbers” vented their frustration at the open-endedness of a few of the chapters as well as, Michael’s scattered observations while on the boat. In many circumstances throughout the novel, the audience is only privy to snippets and bits of character portrayals, and pieces of action. In this way, I believe that Ondaatje provides a realistic perspective of life through the eyes of an eleven-year-old narrator. At the age of eleven, Michael only mentions what is interesting to him at the moment, and never the full picture. Rather than seeing this as an “annoyance” to overcome when reading, I think that this stylistic approach demonstrates Ondaatje’s skillful writing ability.
Get out there and read this book! Comment below afterwards, and tell me how you would rate it!!