The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

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The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robert James
Reviewed by Robert James
Summary: What seems to start off as a series of vivid character sketches eventually reveals a slight but well-thought out plot. The real reason to read this one, though, is Ondaatje's wonderfully lyrical style – outstanding.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: August 2011
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0224093613

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For the first half or so of this book, which sees an 11 year old boy called Michael (or Mynah to his friends) leave his home of Ceylon to travel to school in England, I wasn't really sure if it even had a plot. Focusing on his journey in the 1950's aboard the ship to England, although occasionally leaping forward to his later life where he gives us tantalising glimpses as to what happened to his fellow passengers after the voyage, this originally seems to be nothing more than a series of incredibly well-drawn character sketches. In fairness, I should say that nothing more is rather harsh in this case – the men, women and children Ondaatje creates, from a supposedly cursed rich man seeking a cure, to a friendly thief, to Michael's beautiful cousin Emily, are so beautifully conjured that I could have lived without a plot perfectly happily. However, we eventually realise there's a little more to this narrative, and that this skilful author has been foreshadowing the events at the novel's climax all along.

This was my first exposure to the writing of Michael Ondaatje and certainly won't be my last – as someone who generally speeds through books, it's rather a long time since I've found myself so entranced by the beauty of the language in a novel that I've intentionally slowed down while reading it in order to savour it more. In addition, each and every character here, especially the central trio of Michael and his friends Cassius and Ramadhin, is wonderful to read about, and the jumps back and forward in time actually add a great deal to the novel as we get to see the impact which this journey had on Michael's life.

Huge recommendation; this will be right up there as one of my favourite adult novels of the year. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: The other literary fiction of this year which knocked me for six with its dazzling prose was Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka, a staggering tale of cricket, obsession, and loss.

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