There is a famous ballroom scene in the movie "Notorious." In it, director Alfred Hitchcock creates drama, tension and suspense by means of a slow and impossibly long uninterrupted tracking shot, done while the camera and the subject, Ingrid Bergman, are both in constant motion. The only thing Hitchcock doesn't manage to do is make the set move. If he had, he may have gotten close to the wonderful sense of motion Michael Ondaatje creates in "The Cat's Table."
"That night I woke suddenly with the feeling that we were passing islands and that they were nearby in the darkness. There was a different sound to the waves beside the ship, a sense of an echo, as if they were responding to land."
"The Cat's Table," is a coming-of-age memoir about Michael, an 11-year-old boy from Sri Lanka traveling alone by boat to meet his mother, who lives in England. The journey, the people he meets and the adventures -- and misadventures -- he has, all join together to become a seminal, life-changing experience that forms the basis for the man he later becomes. Though there are glimpses of memories from his early childhood and later adulthood, it is the 28 days he spends on board the boat that make up the lion's share of the book. More than just a framework for the story, the voyage itself becomes an essential character in the tale, one with its own tempo and mood. Even the ship plays a part, acting as the moving backdrop missing from the ballroom scene in "Notorious."
Much of "Table" focuses on the relationship between the hero and Cassius and Ramadhin, two boys of similar age as Michael who are also traveling to England by themselves. The shared experience of being alone on such a journey bonds the trio together and gives them a unique position of freedom aboard ship, something they waste little time exploiting. "I had no family responsibilities. I could go anywhere, do anything. And Ramadhin, Cassius and I had already established one rule. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden."
The interesting title of the book comes from the table to which Michael and his two cohorts are assigned for all their meals. The "Cat's Table" is the one in the dining room farthest from the captain's table. Or, as Miss Lasqueti, one of his fellow diners, refers to it, "the least privileged place."
Far from being a liability, however, we soon learn that the cat's table is a convivial spot full of colorful characters with interesting stories and talents. "Another person of interest at the Cat's Table was Mr. Nevil, a retired ship dismantler, who was returning to England." Mr. Nevil is fascinating to the three boys because in addition to knowing fascinating details of boat construction, "He also had a complete run of the ship. He introduced us to his cohorts in the engine and furnace rooms."
The book is full of wonderful life observations that transcend the story, such as this one, where Michael compares the cat's table to the captain's table: "What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves."
The descriptive language in "Table" is rich and powerful, even when the narrator is relating experiences that as an 11-year-old he doesn't fully understand. For example, this piece about a mysterious passenger known to the boys only as "the prisoner." "It was usually before midnight. The deck shone because of a cloudless moon. He appeared with the guards, one chained to him, one walking behind with a baton. We did not know what his crime was. We assumed it could only have been murder. The concept of anything more intricate, such as a crime of passion or a political betrayal did not exist for us then. He looked powerful, self-contained, and he was barefoot."
Ondaatje's skill at writing is well-known. Having won the Man Booker Prize for his earlier work, "The English Patient," I expected a quality reading experience. But I was far from prepared for the subtle, almost gentle hand the author has with his characters and the skillful and effortless way he gives the reader just enough information to keep the story going and maintain interest, but not so much that the ending is obvious and predictable. Like Hitchcock's tracking shot, the book takes its time, the tension and suspense build very slowly. The book doesn't move at breakneck speed like a jet plane. Rather the story whispers along like an ocean liner.
"The Cat's Table" can be appreciated by a wide audience. The age of its hero will appeal to younger readers. The slow sense of suspense it creates will draw in those who like mysteries. The rich language and description will appeal to those looking for quality writing. "Table" would make a great book club choice. And, if you just happen to be planning a long slow ocean voyage and are wondering which novel to put in your suitcase: Look no further. Your book has arrived.