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review: fiction

Michael Ondaatje

A cat can look at a king, the saying goes, or, in the case of Michael Ondaatje's new boy hero, one at the cat's table can look at all classes. In his sixth novel, The Cat's Table, about a young someday-writer's precocious observations of the adult classes, Ondaatje insists that the most truthful looking is often done from the lowliest positions.

Eleven-year-old Mynah is on board the luxury liner Oronsay in the early 1950s, headed from Colombo, in what was then Ceylon, to London. At mealtimes, Mynah is assigned a seat at the cat's table, "the least privileged place" in the ship's grand dining hall, but the best spot on the ship for an unsupervised boy to overhear the crisscrossing lines of adult intrigue and gossip that he and his friends will pursue toward life-changing adventure.

At the cat's table, Mynah meets two other boys his own age: Cassius, notorious and revered for his troublemaking at school, and quiet Ramadhin, kind, intelligent and physically frail. Together, the boys roam the ship, making noise, crashing into people or staking out the best racing stretches and hiding places. They are befriended by the colourful characters who sit down with them each night: Mr. Mazappa, the pianist who teaches the boys risqué songs; Mr. Nevil, the engineer who shows them the ins and outs of the whole ship; Miss Lasqueti, who carries pigeons in her jacket; and Mr. Daniels, the botanist shepherding a garden of medicinal plants in the ship's hold.

With information gathered from their adult friends and from early-morning and late-night explorations of the decks, the boys quickly track the machinations taking place on the ship. A curse on a wealthy man comes to fruition. A thief ransacks the first-class suites. A shackled prisoner's midnight walks are interrupted. And Mynah's beautiful older cousin, Emily, who also happens to be aboard the Oronsay, is implicated in a man's death.

The Cat's Table is a grinning book, winking and cheeky. This is the Ondaatje of brazen card-sharking and ticking time bombs, of glimpses of female flesh and saucy blues lyrics, not the Ondaatje of the dusty archive or haunting architectural ruin. Fans of his long lyric lines and inward, poetic meditations will find this boyish narrator fresh, staccato and direct. An 11-year-old boy wouldn't have the elevated diction we expect from Ondaatje's solitary, introspective adult characters – that diction re-emerges in chapters given to the older Michael. The constraint of a young character invigorates Ondaatje's prose, and the story moves with unusual swiftness and accessibility.

Told from the perspective of a now-famous writer looking back at a brief time in his life, The Cat's Table is the work of a literary magician seeming to show us the origins of a successful career in sleight of hand. Mynah travels, like Ondaatje himself once did, from Ceylon to England in the 1950s. He eventually moves to Canada. Our narrator (whose real name, we do learn, is Michael) confesses early that he has "a skill in lying, and I learned to withhold small pertinent truths." On the ship, Mynah experiences his first real sustained contact with adults, and is exposed for the first time to the whispered elements of story and the surface gestures that give hints of a character's deeper complexity.

So the novel unfolds as a dual experience of both the trick of storytelling and an insider's explanation of that trick. Mynah the child is all about the tall tale, getting into deep trouble, eavesdropping and taking surreptitious notes. Michael the now-adult author tries to distill significance from three weeks that, as he originally remembered them, "were placid." Only in the skillful retelling of a sea voyage that might have remained unremarked-on and almost forgotten, only through the withholding of small, pertinent truths and an unfathomable play of imagination, is this early experience recalled as both boyhood adventure and meaningful sea change in a man's life.

Still, don't expect a simple boy's-adventure plot. What begins as a pronged set of quirky character sketches moves into a sequence of contemplative flash-forwards describing the adult lives of Michael, Cassius and Ramadhin. In the last third of the book, details lightly glimpsed by the boys are re-examined by an older Michael, and become evidence of the submerged plot concealed in the depths of adult discretion.

I had trouble with the sudden rise to prominence of the characters that dominate the last part of the book. I felt I was being given an invented answer to a fabricated question, rather than an invitation to know who Michael is. I wanted a crack in the very self-sufficiency the narrator wishes to breach in his friend Cassius. More than once, the narrator admits a coldness, a difficulty with intimacy. In many ways, this book is Ondaatje's most intimate yet. It comes close and takes risks in the early personal portrait; but veers away hard into genre just at the moment when that openness – the glimpses we've seen of class consciousness, of immigrant identity – might be brought to the portrait of the writer in the present day.

Still, this book is wonderful, offering all the best pleasures of Ondaatje's writing: his musical prose, up-tempo; his ear for absurd, almost surreal dialogue that had me laughing out loud in public as I read; his admiration for craftsmanship and specialized language in the sciences and the trades; and his sumptuous evocations of sensual delight.

The Cat's Table's particular gift is its irreverence, extended equally toward despotic headmasters and bigoted ship's captains, toward rich, predatory Americans and rich, chauvinist Ceylonese. At the end of the book, Michael, the celebrated author, "is no longer at the Cat's Table." But he has remembered, with dignity, the priceless intelligence of the overlooked position.

Sonnet L'Abbé lives and writes in Vancouver.