This is a beautiful book. It is written with the simplicity and craft of a very experienced writer, where each word counts and each description fits perfectly. I found it a far easier read than some of Ondaatje’s previous novels, such as The English Patient or Anil’s Ghost, and a more entertaining read.
An eleven-year-old boy, Michael, boards an ocean liner bound for England in the early 1950s. He is travelling alone, to meet his mother in England, although he hasn’t seen her for a couple of years and fears that he might not even recognise her. He has someone to keep an eye on him, a friend of his uncle’s, although she is travelling in first class and isn’t very interested in him. He also discovers that his older cousin, Emily, is on board, which is fortuitous for him, as “Emily had been the way I discovered what adults thought of me.” And throughout the journey, he still consults Emily to explain things he does not understand.
Michael is assigned to eat his meals at Table 76 in the dining room, commonly called ‘the Cat’s Table’ as it was the one farthest away from the Captain’s table. It is around the cat’s table that Michael makes friends and companions for the journey; and Ondaatje creates a fascinating array of characters.
He befriends two other boys of the same age – Cassius and Ramadhin – and the three of them entertain themselves on the ship with gay abandon, revelling in no parental control. They like to roam at night, especially since a prisoner in chains is let out to exercise in the dark, and try to discover other secrets hidden amongst the passengers. Ondaatje has used the Cat’s Table as a wonderful tool to introduce the most eccentric characters, such as Mr Mazappa, the ship’s pianist, and Miss Lasqueti, who originally strikes them as being staid and boring until they find out that she has a flock of carrier pigeons in the hold. She wears a jacket with many pockets in which pigeons can fit and she takes them out for a walk like that.
The boys learn about the bewildering and fascinating world of adults as the ship journeys across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean and onto England. Miss Lasqueti tells Michael: “You must keep your ears and eyes open. It’s an education out there.” Mystery encircles the prisoner, a rich baron dies unexpectedly, and a crime gets committed that Michael (known as Mynah by his friends) will remember forever.
The narrative moves between life on the ship and Michael’s adult life, in which he has remained friends with Ramadhin and kept up to date with Cassius’ progress as an artist. When the adult Michael talks about his past on the ship, it is with incredible nostalgia and empathy for their younger selves. Micheal says about the journey across the ocean: “This journey was to be an innocent story within the small parameter of my youth, I once told someone.” In the end, the journey was to stretch far beyond the parameters of his youth and affect his adult life and decisions made therein.
Ondaatje made a similar trip when he was young, but at the end of the book ensures readers that this story is entirely fictional. Perhaps his experiences on board, however, contributed to his being able to write about the experience of a young boy on a huge ocean liner in such detail and with such insight into his and his friends’ characters.
I want to read the book again, although I only finished it two days ago. It is the kind of book that can be read again just for the structure of the narrative and the beauty of the prose, and yet it is a ripping good read at the same time with a mystery crime involved. I would highly recommend it.