The Cat’s Table tells the story of an 11-year-old boy traveling alone on an ocean liner from Columbo, a city in Sri Lanka, to England. His parents are divorced, and he’s moving to live with his mother whom he hasn’t seen for years. Assigned to sit at the “cat’s table” along with assumed undesirable adults and other unattended children, he meets his fellow travelers—a boisterous jazz musician, a silent tailor, a master gardener, a performing hypnotist and even a dying millionaire. Ondaatje jumps quickly among characters, offering readers gentle sketches of each that show how we are all strangers to one another, even to ourselves.
Ondaatje conjures a fabulous voyage for any reader who likes the coming-of-age novel and its focus on the foreign territory we grown-ups call “life.” The author is especially good at portraying the wonder a young person experiences when he first discovers the magic and sorrow of the adult world. The Cat’s Table is an enjoyable book with fascinating characters, told with a hint of magical realism.