The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje Jonathan Cape Most of The Cat's Table, Michael Ondaatje's seventh novel, takes place on board the Oronsay, a luxury passenger ship taking 11-year-old Michael from his home in Sri Lanka to England, where he is to be reunited with his mother before being sent to school. The vivid, fragmentary and frequently lyrical account of this journey in the mid-1950s is punctuated by episodes from Michael's later life. There are hints of success as a writer, a swift mention of children, a longer account of failed marriages, allusions to life in Canada and occasional updates of the people he met on board half a century before. But for most of the novel's 286 pages, Michael's present plays second fiddle to his past. It's as if those 21 days at sea, evoked in Technicolor and surround sound, made everything else seem monochrome, muted and flat, at least for as long as the memories hold sway. The Oronsay, Michael realises many years later, was a visionary exception to the rules of his everyday life: 'There was the chance to escape all order. And I reinvented myself in this seemingly imaginary world.' It is tempting to read The Cat's Table as autobiography. Like Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth and J.M. Coetzee, Ondaatje teases us with personal details only to smack us on the nose for daring to read the story as his life. A brief afterword makes it clear that although parts of the novel 'use the colouring and locations of memoir, The Cat's Table is fictional'. As if to underline the point, Ondaatje begins in the third person, describing Michael from a safe distance: 'I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was. Perhaps a sense of self is not even there in his nervous stillness in the narrow bunk.' But the next chapter plunges us into Michael's consciousness, as if Ondaatje is having a novelistic inner-body experience. The Cat's Table has its fair share of action and adventure. There is more than one death, including the strange case of Horace da Silva, who is cursed to be bitten by dogs. In one memorable scene, Michael is lashed to the deck during a vicious storm. The climax of the novel involves a stand-off between the crew and a murderous escaped convict, who bears a self-conscious resemblance to David Copperfield's Magwitch. But fans of The English Patient be warned - while something is constantly happening somewhere, The Cat's Table doesn't have a plot so much as a series of interlinked characters, happenings and motifs - dogs appear and vanish suddenly, for instance. The diverse parts of the whole are connected by the central protagonist. In The Cat's Table, this should read protagonists as Michael fuses a young boy's immature vigilance with an older man's uncertain memory: 'The three weeks of the sea journey, as I originally remembered it, were placid. It is only now, years later ... that it becomes an adventure ... even something significant in a life.' The Cat's Table can be read as a Proustian hymn to what makes a moment in life memorable, even half a century after the event. Sex stays in the head as does vulgarity. He recalls with starling clarity the ribald acronym for Egypt: 'Ever Grasping Your Precious Tits.' But his novelist-in-waiting's imagination is especially fired by other people. Michael's three weeks on the Oronsay is the first time he encounters grown-ups outside his own family. The experience is both revelatory and mysterious. He confesses that he is never quite sure what he is seeing, his mind always 'half grabbing the rigging of adult possibility'. Michael is drawn to people on the periphery: 'What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power.' Take the titular 'cat's table', slang for the lowest rung on the ship's rigorously enforced social ladder. There the lowly, strange and the young eat their meals in the ship's mess, far from the elite but complacent captain's table: 'Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.' It is at the cat's table that Michael meets Cassius and Ramadhin, his young comrades in roaming the Oronsay. Cassius' ambition is to 'take a s*** in the captain's enamel toilet'. He also encounters the mercurial pianist, Mr Mazappa, and Mr Gunesekera, a silent Sri Lankan tailor from Kandy. Michael's glamorous but elusive cousin, Emily, drops in from time to time. This collection of misfits shapes Michael's imagination, and teaches him that every surface masks hidden depths, such as the petite and enigmatic Miss Lasqueti, a woman with a Bohemian past. There is also the moment Michael spies the Hyderabad Mind, a mystical member of the ship's entertainment troupe, applying the terrifying make-up he wears on stage, the 'stripes of purple paint' that make his 'ghoulish eyes now full of sulphur and perception'. Recalling the moment years later, Michael realises he was witnessing 'for the first time what possibly took place behind the thin curtain of art'. This peeling back of masks transforms the Oronsay into a floating metaphor. Michael's inquisitive trio is forever investigating mysteries inside lifeboats, behind locked doors and on deck when nobody else is around. These visions of buried treasure are fleeting but all the more intense for it. Each day at dawn, Michael and his friends watch a young Australian girl wheel around the decks on roller skates. Exhausted, she showers fully clothed: 'When she left we followed her footprints, which were already evaporating in the new sunlight as we approached them.' At night, they alone glimpse the manacled convict escorted slowly into the open air. The metaphorical power of the boat (refined top deck; wilder depths) is made clear when Mr Daniels, a cheerful botanist who is half in love with Emily, escorts them into the hull of the Oronsay. There they view the vast garden he is accompanying from Asia to Europe. The discovery combines life and death: there are plants that can save your life and a few that might just end it. There is even a hint of the erotic in a vast mural of a naked woman astride a cannon, painted on the Oronsay during its wartime service. The Cat's Table is part coming-of-age story, part visionary exercise in nostalgia. Michael's restless explorations and transgressions feel like Ondaatje has produced his own Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or even a pocket-sized version of Proust (who is cited explicitly at one point). Joseph Conrad's Youth is a more direct touchstone, not to mention the novel's epigraph - only Ondaatje inverts Marlow's journey of self-discovery from West to East. The narrative is at times frustrating. If you are immune to the charms of purple prose and allusions to high art, Ondaatje is never going to be your guy. The sections in which a middle-aged Michael encounters middle-aged Emily felt precious; some people must still use the word 'vile' but I am yet to meet one. But this irritation doubles as a backhanded tribute to the story's unusual charms. The passages about life on the Oronsay are vibrantly described and acutely pleasurable. I warmed to the young Michael and his burgeoning imagination, hovering between freedom and restriction, the past and the future, the East and the West. 'There is a story, always ahead of you,' he muses towards the end. 'Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character.'