Sometimes I come across a book that so nourishes my soul that I feel like I’ve become enlarged simply by having read it. Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table is one of them. When I told my agent about my latest project, which is set against a very brief, linear backdrop, she suggested that I read Ondaatje’s book to see how he handled a potentially confining setting: a boy’s journey by sea from Ceylon to Britain.
Then it happened that my hometown was one of the stops on Ondaatje’s book tour, and so I had the chance to hear him read several excerpts from The Cat’s Table. He had taken such a voyage as a boy, but this story—of a fictional Michael who later becomes a writer—is far more than an amplified memory. It is a magical narrative that rides the waves of a mischievous, observant child as he travels mostly unsupervised to an unknown destination, and is gently interrupted along the way with reflections and stories and observations of an older Michael, who was significantly informed by those few weeks at sea.
I found myself wanting the fictional ship, Oronsay, to slow down as it approached Europe; page 265 loomed too closely, and I wasn’t ready to disembark Ondaatje’s mythical journey. He writes with such calm insight that the simplest descriptions yield the most profound revelations. An example is the narrator’s assessment of his cousin, Emily:
“A writer, I cannot remember who, spoke of a person having ‘a confusing grace.’ With an uncertainty alongside her warmth, that is how Emily has always been for me. You trusted her but she didn’t trust herself. She was ‘good,’ but she was not that way in her own eyes. Those qualities still had not balanced out somehow, or agreed with each other.”
The book concluded with a perfect—not confusing—grace, and I put it reluctantly down with a sense of peace. Ondaatje’s story may have ended, but not completely, because now it’s become part of my own journey—as a writer and a reader, and I’m the better for it.