When I picked up my October feature book, The Cat's Table, I recalled a radio interview I had once heard with New York Sun columnist Lenore Skenazy.

Three years ago Skenazy created a media stir when she wrote a column confessing she had allowed her nine-year-old to ride the New York subway home alone.

Skenazy says that for weeks her son Izzy had been begging her to take him somewhere in the city and allow him to find his own way home. After discussing it with her husband and agreeing he was ready, she made sure his pockets were stuffed with a subway map, a $20 note, some coins in case he had to make a phone call, and a subway ticket before she kissed him goodbye.

He arrived home one hour later, safe, sound and ecstatic at his newfound independence.


Soon after the column appeared, Skenazy's phone began ringing off the hook. Media outlets were queuing up to interview the woman who would henceforth be known as "America's Worst Mum".

I'm curious to know what Skenazy's critics have to say about the premise behind the latest novel from Michael Ondaatje. The Cat's Table tells the story of an 11-year-old boy travelling unaccompanied by ocean liner from Colombo, Ceylon, to the United Kingdom in the early 1950s.

Ah but it's fiction, such critics might say. Indeed it is a fictional story, but one inspired by an unaccompanied journey Ondaatje himself took at the same age, travelling from Ceylon or Sri Lanka to join his mother in the United Kingdom.

Ondaatje is quick to stress he remembers little of the actual voyage (more on that in our forthcoming author Q&A), but the fictional protagonist Mynah (short for Michael) is soon keeping company with a suite of characters who might give the modern-day parent cause for alarm.

Mynah is assigned to dine at Table 76, soon dubbed "the cat's table" as both the table for the least privileged and the one located furthest from the captain's table. Among his fellow diners are two other unaccompanied minors, Ramadhin and Cassius, the latter of whom was a year above Mynah at school, had been expelled for a time and was considered "the incorrigable of St Thomas' College".

There's "a likely spinster" Miss Lasqueti , and Mr Mazappa, a pianist on the "skids" who tells the boys to keep their eyes and ears open as the voyage will be a great education. There's a botanist, a tailor, a card-playing cabin-mate Mr Hastie, and Mr Nevil, a retired ship dismantler who guides the boys around the Oronsay from bow to stern and down into the bowels of the ship, clarifying all her "dangerous and not-so-dangerous possibilities."

Prior to departure, Mynah's family spoke of the voyage without affording it any particular significance. "No mention was made that this might be an unusual experience, or that it could be exciting or dangerous, so I did not approach it with any joy or fear," writes an older Mynah, reflecting on the voyage.

"I was not forewarned that the ship would have seven levels, hold more than 600 people including a captain, nine cooks, engineers, a veterinarian, and that it would contain a small jail and chlorinated pools that would actually sail with us over two oceans."


The book is told in a series of small episodes recollected by Mynah's adult self. Writing in The Listener, Paula Morris called it "compulsively readable and often very funny", while The Toronto Globe and Mail described it as "wonderful, offering all the best pleasures of Ondaatje's writing: his musical prose, up-tempo; his ear for absurd, almost surreal dialogue that had me laughing out loud in public as I read; his admiration for craftsmanship and specialized language in the sciences and the trades; and his sumptuous evocations of sensual delight."

Sounds like an intriguing and entertaining read. If you're keen to join me there's still time to enter our competition to win a copy of both The Cat's Table and Bronwyn's feature read, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.

Click here to enter and stop by next Tuesday and Friday to read our mid-way thoughts about the books.

- Herald online