The Cat’s Table, By Michael Ondaatje

From The Independent:

On As a young boy in 1954, Michael Ondaatje left Sri Lanka – which was then Ceylon – for England. After schooling at Dulwich College, he continued on to Canada, where as a young man he would finally put down roots and take Canadian citizenship. In his latest novel, The Cat's Table, his pre-pubescent narrator, also named Michael, is placed alone on to a giant liner pulling out of Colombo and set for London in the early Fifties. Any autobiographical qualities can only partly be responsible for what proves to be an eloquent, elegiac tribute to the game of youth and how it shapes what follows. “He was 11 years old that night when, green as he could be about the world, he climbed aboard the first and only ship of his life,” states Michael, looking back from adulthood. “It felt as if a city had been added to the coast, better lit than any town or village.” The boy is to be met on the London docks by his mother. Until then, The Oronsay, a floating palace of a ship, is a bobbing realm of unlimited possibilities for a boy on the cusp of adolescence.

At meal times, the boy is relegated to Table 76, the cat's table of the title. This is the dining equivalent of the boondocks, as far from the Captain's table as is physically possible and the dumping ground of the ship's most insignificant passengers. It is at this table that he makes friends with two boys of a similar age to him, Ramadhin and Cassius. The former is gentle and sickly, the latter rebellious and bold. Over the course of 21 days, the trio's friendship is forged in bad behaviour, exploration and learning. “Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden. The day had barely begun, and we still had hours ahead of us to perform this task.”

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