The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje, the Sri Lankan-born, Canadian author was published in 2011. Set in the early 1950s, the novel follows the journey of an 11 year old boy named Michael, who travels from Ceylon to England aboard the ship, Oronsay.

The narrative unfolds through the lens of Michael as an adult, reminiscing about the pivotal journey that shaped his life. The novel moves between different periods of his life and shows the effect of the voyage on the young and impressionable lad. It explores themes of identity, adventure, and the passage from childhood to adulthood.

Setting Sail

The Cat’s Table begins with an older Michael reflecting on his past and recalling his journey aboard the Oronsay. He describes his younger self as an adventurous and curious boy who embarks on a voyage to reunite with his mother.

On the ship, Michael gets thrown into the company of two very dissimilar boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. Though poles apart from each other, their shared camaraderie leads them to form a trio of mischief-makers, and they make a rule of doing at least one thing that’s forbidden each day. It gets them relegated to the “Cat’s Table,” the least prestigious dining area of the ship, where they meet a cast of colorful and mysterious characters, and leads them to adventures that have a transformative effect on them.

Life on the Ship

As the voyage progresses, Michael and his companions explore the ship, encountering various passengers and crew members. They befriend a mysterious woman named Miss Lasqueti, who keeps a menagerie of birds in her cabin, and Mr. Nevil a retired ship dismantler who shares stories of his past adventures and Mr Daniel, a botanist, who has a garden of mysterious plants in the hold of the ship.  Michael becomes infatuated with a beautiful older girl who is also his distant cousin called Emily, with whom he shares confidences. The boys spend their nocturnal hours peeping into the goings-on on the ship and end up seeing, hearing and understanding events beyond their years. Each one leaves an impression and a lesson for the young lads in a bitter-sweet coming of age.

Revelations and Transformations

The boys engage in a series of misadventures, including smuggling a dog onboard and exploring the forbidden areas of the ship. As the journey unfolds, Michael begins to uncover the secrets and hidden depths of his fellow passengers. He learns about the complexities of adult relationships, including love, loss, and betrayal. Through his interactions with the other passengers, Michael gains insights into the nature of human connection and the fragility of life.

Arrival in England

As the Oronsay approaches its destination, Michael’s journey nears its end. He grapples with conflicting emotions as he prepares to leave behind the friends and experiences that have shaped him. He bids farewell to his fellow passengers, and those who impart a final message of hope and resilience. As the ship docks in England, Michael faces the uncertainty of what lies ahead, but he carries with him the lessons and memories of his transformative journey.

The Cat’s Table : Themes

Identity and Self-Discovery: Through his journey aboard the Oronsay, Michael grapples with questions of identity and belonging. He navigates the complexities of adolescence and begins to forge his own path in the world.
Friendship and Connection: The novel explores the bonds of friendship that form among the passengers aboard the Oronsay. Michael’s relationships with his fellow travellers shape his understanding of human connection and companionship.
Memory and Nostalgia: The narrative is framed by Michael’s recollections as an adult, highlighting the power of memory and nostalgia to shape our understanding of the past.
Journey and Transformation: Michael’s voyage aboard the Oronsay serves as a metaphor for his journey from childhood to adulthood. He undergoes a process of transformation, learning valuable lessons along the way.
Exploration and Adventure: The novel captures the spirit of adventure and exploration as Michael and his companions embark on a voyage filled with unexpected twists and turns.


“The Cat’s Table” is a richly evocative novel that transports us on a journey of discovery and self-reflection. Through Michael’s eyes, we experience the joys and sorrows of adolescence, the beauty of human connection, and the transformative power of travel. As the Oronsay sails toward its destination, Michael emerges forever changed, carrying with him the memories of a voyage that will stay with him for a lifetime.

Renu E Jamwal

She is a professional with over 25 years of work experience in senior roles across industry verticals like Hotels, Automation, Retail, Media, BPO and Telecom. Having worked with Fortune 500 companies, she has had an opportunity to get a close look at and lead change in systems, processes and HR practices. She is a Green Belt in Six Sigma. In her last role she was the National Head for Customer Experience across all Touch Points where she led a team of 7000 people. In addition to her Operations role she served as the Chairperson of Aircel’s Ethics Committee.

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