The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
2011 Mann Booker Award Winner
The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje
Winner of the Mann Booker Prize in 1992
For The English Patient
Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned The English Patient because you may go running from this review like Elaine did on Seinfeld when she went to see the movie with John Peterman. But please don’t. First let me explain why I’m doing two reviews at once. As you can see, both books are rather short. They both have a similar theme: Older men who are now looking back on their lives and contemplating if they’d made the right choices. Read more…
They are both books about missed opportunities, imperfections of memory and reckless behavior. In The Sense of An Ending, Tony, a man now is his 60’s is forced to look back because it has raced forward to meet him. While in college, he meets and dates Veronica and one weekend he is invited to her parents’ home where he is made to feel very uncomfortable. He and Veronica’s relationship ends badly. She then begins dating Tony’s best friend, Adrian. Adrian soon commits suicide. Flash forward 40 years and he receives a letter from an attorney stating that Veronica’s mother had bequeathed him 500 pounds and Adrian’s diary. Why did she do that? He hasn’t a clue. He is then forced to relive those memories colored by age. Does he see his life as others have seen it? What did he do during that period when he dated Veronica that would bring on such a gift from a woman whom he hardly new? And now Veronica refuses to give him the diary. Veronica does give bits and pieces as if she is trying to torment him. They even meet a few times with Tony trying to get the diary from her. But these meetings are disastrous. The harder he tries to get the diary the more of his past he dredges up. And he begins to see how even immature angry outbursts can have consequences that transgress the years. He sees “that he avoids deep connections rather than embracing it, for fear of loss” and that “what we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them.” The ending will come as a big surprise.
The Cat’s Table seems to have a very simple story. It begins in 1954. A young boy of eleven is put on a boat named the Oronsay to sail from Ceylon to England. There he is to go to school and to live with is mother. The novel is about that voyage and the voyage of Mynah’s (Michael’s) life. It is told from both the present and the past. When Mynah arrives on the ship, he finds that there are two other boys, the quiet, sickly Ramadhin and the tough, adventurous Cassius. They are all seated at the Cat’s Table, the furthest away from the Captain’s Table and the least desirable. But the cast of characters seated at that table could come from any Agatha Christie novel. Are they really who or what they say they are? Ondaatje weaves a brilliant tapestry of character for all of the passengers on the ship. The boys soon realize they are in a world of adults but also realize “they are invisible to officials” and become reckless and daring. One night during a severe storm, Cassius convinces Ramandhin to lash both he and Mynah to the deck. The boys almost drown and are severely admonished by the Captain. Their reckless behavior continues with Mynah allowing a male passenger to lather his body with motor oil so he can slip out of a port hole’s bars and into other cabin’s port holes to open the door for the thief. They also witness, well, I won’t give that part away. But looking back through the decades, Mynah, like Tony, wonders if he had made the right choices. Why did he keep one friend and not the other? He later finds that his shipmate, Cassius, has become a famous artist and that the voyage had a greater impact on him than he and Ramadhin. And he solves a decades old mystery.
Final word: Both are excellent reads.