So, done reading my first Ondaatje. I chose this book over The English Patient, because the title seemed exciting and because I felt like an adventure story rather than a war-time saga.
This book grew on me insidiously, almost sneakily! In the beginning I found the multiple characters and the author’s back & forth style of narration a little hard to like, but the story kept me going. Then before I knew it, I was past a 100 pages and quite caught up with the happenings on board the Oronsay, – a large liner on its way from Sri Lanka to the UK, with its motley group passengers. For the three central characters, 11-yr-old, Michael & Ramadhin and 12-yr-old Cassius, this is their first mega-adventure and they are infused with a nervous energy so natural in boys their age. Ondaatje’s skill lies in making that energy infectious! Michael is the main narrator and we see his fellow passengers and their doings through his eyes, colored by his perceptions. So we learn what three boys will do to keep themselves occupied on a ship, surrounded by all manner of adults, seated at the Cat’s table (so named for its lowly position & distance from the preferred and premier Captain’s Table in the ship’s dining hall), trying to make the most of the 3 week journey at the end of which is the tentative promise of a fresh start.
The characters at the Cat’s table as I mentioned are a motley bunch of interesting adults, each with their own share of whimsy and secrets. A musician, a botanist, a pigeon-transporter, a tailor, a retired ship-breaker, a thief, a prisoner and a troop of acrobats, to name just a few, make for intriguing travel companions! For me, Ondaatje’s writing prowess is most visible when he describes each one of them accurately, as seen through the eyes of an 11-yr-old! The things he leaves unsaid and unobserved are just as important as the things he has Michael notice. Although this was a trifle unsettling initially, it made more sense as I read further. I enjoyed the boys’ antics fuelled by their morbid curiosity, their penchant for adventure and their youthful fearlessness. The ‘storm sequence’ especially had me both breathless and raging at once! The story reads much like a memoir (probably because the author and his main character share names), and I was quite disappointed to read Ondaatje’s note at the end that says it’s not, although a few instances, characters and locations etc. are borrowed from real memories.
A word on the prose – it’s not lush and overwhelming, but apt and spot on in the context. I like how Ondaatje reveals character traits and slips in insights ever so often with wryness and a gentle irony. As such most of the text makes most sense when read in context, still here are a few lines I really liked towards the end of the book, more so because like Michael, I finally began to feel like I had a handle on the mysterious Emily, a fellow passenger and childhood friend, “A writer, I cannot remember who, spoke of a person having ‘a confusing grace’. With an uncertainty alongside her warmth, that is how Emily has always been for me. You trusted her but she didn’t trust herself. She was ‘good’, but she was not that way in her own eyes. Those qualities still had not balanced out somehow, or agreed with each other.”
When I began, I thought the book vague and meandering…but as I got into it, I began to enjoy and understand the psyche of characters and the author’s purposeful vagueness of certain events. As Michael tries to make sense of the journey, he comes upon new realizations and new interpretations of old memories, and draws new conclusions, which sometimes brought relief and sometimes made matters more obscure, and I was right there with him. This is ultimately a coming of age story, that reaches far beyond the constraints of the ship voyage, best expressed years later, I think by Emily in conversation with Michael about the past, “Seventeen. I was seventeen too. We all became adults before we were adults. Do you ever think that?”
The book reads a little like a patchwork quilt – a little bit of this and a little bit of that – but if you give it a shot, there’s every possibility that after a while, it’ll start to feel like that favourite dog-eared quilt that you don’t want to let go. At the very least – an interesting read. As for me, I’ve discovered yet another author worth exploring further (are they all?!) and The English Patient doesn’t seem so intimidating any more 😉
Coming up next: Rainbow Noon by Dhiruben Patel – a slim novel (less than 200 pages) about a ‘sanyasi’ who returns to live a worldly life and what follows next. The book is a Sahitya Akademi Award winner – one of the highest literary prizes awarded in India. Looking forward to it 🙂
Happy Reading People!
- The Cat’s Table (bhplnjbookgroup.blogspot.com)
- ‘The Cat’s Table’ by Michael Ondaatje (kimbofo.typepad.com)
- The First Sentence of Every Novel Should Be… (jthorsson.com)