The Cat's Table - Second Sunday Book Club September Meeting

The book for September is The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje. We have posted information about the author and a reading guide. It might be helpful to take a look at the reading guide AFTER you read the book but before you attend the meeting. The guides always seem to provide good insight, and help to facilitate better discussion. The Meetup will be held at The Blue Orchid in Lancaster, PA. Hope to see you in September!

About the Author 

Michael Ondaatje was born in Colombo,Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1943 and moved to England in 1954. His work includes fiction, autobiography, poetry and film. He won the Booker Prize for his novel The English Patient, which was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film.

Book Description

In the early 1950s, an 11-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. The Cat's Table is a quiet masterpiece by a writer at the height of his craft.

Reader’s Guide

1. The epigraph below is taken from the short story “Youth” by Joseph Conrad. How does this set up the major themes of The Cat’s Table?
And this is how I see the East.... I see it always from a small boat—not a light, not a stir, not a sound. We conversed in low whispers, as if afraid to wake up the land.... It is all in that moment when I opened my young eyes on it. I came upon it from a tussle with the sea.
2. How is the voyage itself a metaphor for childhood?

3. Why do you think the opening passages of the book are told in third person?

4. We are 133 pages into the novel before Ondaatje gives us an idea of what year it is. How does he use time—or the sense of timelessness—to propel the story?

5. The anonymity of ocean travel and the sense that board ship we know only what others want us to know about them come into play at several points in the novel. What is Ondaatje saying about identity?

6. For several characters—the three boys and Emily among them—the journey represents a loss of innocence. For whom does it have the greatest impact?

7. Discuss the importance of some of the seemingly minor characters at the table: Mr. Mazappa, Mr. Fonseka, Mr. Nevil. What do they contribute to the story?

8. “What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power,” the narrator realizes (page 75). “Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.” How does this prove true over the course of the novel?

9. How do the narrator’s experiences breaking and entering with the Baron change his way of looking at the world?

10. Discuss the three boys’ experience during the typhoon. How does it affect their friendship and their attitude toward authority figures?

11. How does the death of Sir Hector factor into the larger story?

12. On page 155, the narrator refers to Ramadhin as “the saint of our clandestine family.” What does he mean?

13. When describing the collapse of his marriage, the narrator says,
Massi said that sometimes, when things overwhelmed me, there was a trick or a habit I had: I turned myself into something that did not belong anywhere. I trusted nothing I was told, not even what I witnessed (page 203).
What made him behave this way? How did it affect his marriage?

14. On page 208, the narrator tells us about a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne in which...
he spoke of how viewers of his films should not assume they understood everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they; we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves.
Why did Ondaatje give us this warning, so far into the novel? What is he telling us?

15. What was your reaction to the revelations about Miss Lasqueti?

16. How do you think her letter to Emily might have changed the events on board the Oronsay? Why didn’t she send it?

17. Miss Laqueti signs off her letter, “‘Despair young and never look back,’ an Irishman said. And this is what I did” (page 231). What does she mean?

18. Discuss Emily’s relationship with Asuntha. Did she, as the narrator suggests on page 251, see herself in the deaf girl?

19. When Emily says to the narrator, “I don’t think you can love me into safety,” (page 250), to what is she referring? What is the danger, decades after the voyage?

20. The narrator wishes to protect Emily, Cassius has Asuntha, and Ramadhin has Heather Cave. “What happened that the three of us had a desire to protect others seemingly less secure than ourselves?” he asks on page 262. How would you answer that question?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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  • lina f.

    I found the book, Cat's Table very enjoyable; with many enduring characters.

    September 21, 2012

  • Susan F.

    Loved it! Intrigued by the characters, their secrets, their perspectives on life, what they taught the young boys, how the boys' lives turned out

    September 12, 2012

  • A former member
    A former member

    very nice meeting excellent conversation at our table great bunch of women

    September 10, 2012

  • Ginny

    Great discussions about this book and other authors

    September 10, 2012

  • A former member
    A former member

    I really liked the book and it was fun discussing it with others who had also read it.

    September 10, 2012

  • Kathlene S.

    No worries Miguel and Dana. Look forward to meeting you both in October.

    September 8, 2012

  • Kathlene S.

    Fingers crossed Audrey!

    September 7, 2012

  • Kathlene S.

    Oh Bethany we will miss you!! But best of luck with both the boxes and that new job. Will be thinking of you fondly as we are happily reading. Lots of happiness in the new home to you and Jameson.
    - Kathlene

    September 5, 2012

  • Bethany F.

    I'm sorry to say this, but I think I will need to take a break from the group for awhile! My new job has given me so many new responsibilities, and I have many events every weekend for the next few months. I also moved to downtown York, so as you imagine, boxes are everywhere.
    I will keep an eye on the group and maybe I can get a chance to come back, but until then, happy reading!

    September 5, 2012

  • Dana

    I just bought the book today so I need to get busy and start reading it. Is it ok if I don't finish it by the meeting? I probably will but want to make sure.

    August 26, 2012

    • Kathlene S.

      Never a problem Dana. I think you are going to enjoy it and we are all looking forward to meeting you!

      August 26, 2012

    • Dana

      thank you...I am excited to come to the meeting and meet some new people

      August 26, 2012

  • Kathlene S.

    Kathy Richardson, no problem, even though we are going to have a slightly delayed celebration of my Bat mitzvah that you will be missing. We will try to carry on without you, but don't expect me to save you a knish.

    August 8, 2012

  • Kathlene S.

    Bethany - I am going to plead alien abduction here. Thanks for pointing this out. We are meeting on the SECOND Sunday, as usual. Made the needed change and hope to see you on September 9th!

    July 17, 2012

  • Bethany F.

    I might have missed this: we are meeting the first weekend of September?

    July 16, 2012

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