Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Cat's Table

A spellbinding story - by turns poignant and electrifying - about the magical, often forbidden, discoveries of childhood and a lifelong journey that begins unexpectedly with a spectacular sea voyage.
In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy in Colombo boards a ship bound for England. At mealtimes he is seated at the "cat's table" - as far from the Captain's Table as can be - with a ragtag group of "insignificant" adults and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. As the ship makes its way across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, the boys tumble from one adventure to another, bursting all over the place like freed mercury. But there are other diversions as well: one man talks with them about jazz and women, another opens the door to the world of literature. The narrator's elusive, beautiful cousin Emily becomes his confidante, allowing him to see himself "with a distant eye" for the first time, and to feel the first stirring of desire. Another Cat's Table denizen, the shadowy Miss Lasqueti, is perhaps more than what she seems. And very late every night, the boys spy on a shackled prisoner, his crime and his fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever.
As the narrative moves between the decks and holds of the ship and the boy's adult years, it tells a spellbinding story - by turns poignant and electrifying - about the magical, often forbidden, discoveries of childhood and a lifelong journey that begins unexpectedly with a spectacular sea voyage. (Goodreads)

Boy, did I enjoy this novel!
I've tried to read The English Patient by the same author, and failed horribly. I just couldn't stand the slow pace of that novel and you can imagine I felt a some trepidation trying this novel, but I'm glad I did.

The Cat's table is a remarkable book about childhood and how growing up changes your perspective. I got the sense that the author took his time remembering his own perceptions while growing up to turn this into a believable account of an eleven-year-old boy views and beliefs of the world around him. It's unmistakably clever in the way he grasps at a reality not yet conceived for its true meaning. How difficult it sometimes is to explain certain grown up things when you're not yet introduced into that world and how you lose that childish innocence the moment you learn the true meaning of what seemed so mysterious growing up.

As a child all emotions seem to be bigger and bolder and more confusing than once you're old enough to take control. Mynah, the main character, struggles with this coming of age as he is still a child but slowly enrolling in this world he sees from a distance. He doesn't understand why people behave the way they do and fails to interact accordingly. His failure to comprehend, gives him a slightly different point of view where anything remotely vile and offending becomes adventurous and mysterious.
The Cat's Table, the table of the least important on the ship, filled with people who live on the edge, each with their own story, first seen through Mynah's eleven-year-old eyes and then when he's older, trying to find the meaning of what he saw. He struggles with the distorted memory of an eventful trip and the awful feeling he might have done something to have prevented disaster. 

The passenger he's closest to, on the ship, is his cousin Emily. She's 17 years old and their 6 year gap makes for a unique relationship. She's on the verge of making a wrong decision and he's incapable of understanding what that decision truly entails, until many years later, when the Oronsay is just a fleeting memory.
Still, their chemistry is very vivid and I could easily imagine it to be real. Childhood has a tendency to become larger than life when reminiscing. What now seems ordinary and trite, felt then like a daunting adventure. Emotions were bound to swallow you whole and the world was continually shrouded in mystery.

I really recommend this novel to anyone wanting to experience a sliver of childhood, as if it really never went anywhere.