This novel takes place on a ship traveling between Sri Lanka and England in the early 1950’s. Its narrator, Michael, is eleven and traveling without supervision. He befriends two other young men on the ship and the three of them engage in the kinds of adventures one would expect–sneaking into the first class areas, filching food, sneaking a dog aboard.
The book’s title refers to the table in the ship’s dining room where the passengers with the lowest status were assigned. That is, of course, where one would expect to find the most interesting people–and Michael does.
About a third of the way through the book, I began to wonder where it was heading. At that point, it seemed much like a romp of a book, the mood overall light, a quirky cast of characters introduced in succession, with no sense of a narrative trajectory–no problem to solve.
And then Ondaatje introduces some evil and mystery. That dog that one of the boys sneaks aboard bites and kills a seriously ill passenger. A prisoner tries to mount an escape. Michael takes all of this in, only later figuring out how some of the pieces fit together.
At about the same point, the narrator moves away from the voyage to tell some of what happened after. He remains friends with one of his ship buddies and eventually marries that boy’s sister though the marriage doesn’t last. Decades after the voyage, he meets up with a cousin who had been aboard, a pretty young woman who at the time seemed to be involved in some mystery all her own. These time shifts continue until the novel ends with the ship’s arrival in England.
I sensed that the novel lost energy when it left the ship itself. There’s something about a ship story, a group of people confined together, that when written well becomes a delicious soup of humanity.
Each time that I read a book from the Notables list, I reflect on why it was chosen. In this case, Ondaatje is the master of elegant writing, of the effective turn of phrase. The narrator that he creates here strikes a perfect balance of a youngster’s point of view with an older man’s wisdom and regret. Reviewers often use the word “elegant” to describe Ondaatje’s writing–fine choice of words, observations that are spot on, and that sense of writing so well done that it calls no attention to itself. Applying such elegance to so quirky a group of characters as in “The Cat’s Table” is a lovely irony.
I’ll recommend this to readers who often choose more literary novels, seeking the qualities that Ondaatje weaves into this fine sea story.
I was in the midst of reading “Columbine” by Dave Cullen as I read my way through this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list. It’s a good book, but intense. After a nightmare involving a Columbine-like incident at the Omaha Public Library (remember, just a dream!), I realized that I needed a break. So I took home “The Vagrants.”
It wasn’t that much of a break.
Here’s what I wrote in a review in Visual Bookshelf:
“I chose this book because it’s on the American Library Association Notable Books list. I expect that many people would consider it depressing–I found it so, too.
Li weaves together the lives of several people in the [fictional Chinese] town of Muddy River in the late 1970’s. Widespread poverty, the sense of lingering loss from the Cultural Revolution, and ongoing scheming to get ahead without getting caught, combine to destroy trust and love…or maybe trust and love don’t exist much here. It feels like nobody has a haven, either in a place, or in a person’s arms.
And I think that’s the author’s point…that things became so crazy in China that the bonds that hold people together in the best ways, through family, friendships, and rewarding work, are broken. And “The Vagrants” leads us to face the dismal result. Not an easy read, but sometimes we ought to face and recognize evil.”
What I’d add to that is that Li does a wonderful job of introducing a cast of characters, and then interweaving their lives. These aren’t necessarily people that we’ll come to love and trust and hope the best for, but they are distinct individuals, well-drawn. She reveals their particular vulnerabilities, and we learn how they’ll suffer for them.
I’d recommend this to readers who are interested in China, especially on the impact of recent politics there, who love a novel with interweaving plots, and who don’t insist on a happy ending.