Most of the plot of Michael Ondaatje’s sixth novel is contained within a three-week voyage from Sri Lanka to England aboard a ship called the Oronsay. The narrator is a man recalling that 1954 voyage, when he was eleven years old, to rejoin his single mother whom he had not seen in four years. The story unfolds in classic Ondaatje fashion, with fragmentary scenes, fleeting images, and chronological leaps across decades that make more sense in retrospect or re-reading.
In the first chapter, the only portion narrated in the third person, the boy is driven by anonymous relatives to the port, where he climbs aboard the ship without saying goodbye.
The narrator then assumes the first-person voice and introduces Flavia Prins, an acquaintance of his uncle, the only adult supervising him on the Oronsay, though she is traveling in First Class.
Michael is assigned to eat in “the least privileged place” in the dining room, the Cat’s Table, farthest from the Captain’s Table. There he meets Cassius and Ramadhin, two other boys near his age, also traveling unattended. The adults at the table are some of the novel’s central characters. Mr. Mazappa, a troubled pianist, teaches the boys bawdy songs and facts. Mr. Nevil, a ship dismantler who carries blueprints of the Oronsay with him, shows the boys around the ship as he does safety research.
Michael (nicknamed Mynah) learns that a seventeen-year-old cousin, Emily, is on the boat. He forms a quick friendship with “quiet Ramadhin and the exuberant Cassius.” At nights they spy on an anonymous prisoner who is brought out on the deck for exercise after most passengers have retired. Flavia Prins tells Michael the prisoner is rumored to have killed a judge.
Ramadhin regularly wakes Michael before dawn and the three boys sneak up to the First Class deck to swim and take food from the breakfast table to eat in a suspended lifeboat—a good hiding and spying place. They smoke bits of cane broken from a chair and agree to “do at least one thing that was forbidden” each day.
Michael flashes forward two years to visiting Ramadhin and his sister Massi in England, where Massi shows him her developing breasts and where the three youth explore London together on school holidays.
In a flashback to life in Sri Lanka, Michael is rescued from drowning in a concrete rain channel by an older student. He muses that “feral children” are “contented” and that being on the Oronsay was his “first time by necessity in close quarters with adults.”
Mr. Daniels, a botanist who eats at the Cat’s Table and has a crush on Michael’s cousin, Emily, wrestles and plays with the boys; Michael lies to him that Emily likes theatre. Daniels talks with the Jankla Troupe, acrobats and illusionists who include The Hyderabad Mind (Sunil). Emily meets Sunil which will change her fate. Daniels takes the boys down to the hold to show them his garden full of exotic plants growing under lights and misters. Daniels shares an “unusual beedi” (a type of cigarette) with them, after which they cause havoc in the swimming pool.
The boys find an empty turbine room to sleep in during afternoons so they can continue their nighttime prowling, and Michael sees Sunil alone on deck with his cousin Emily. He remembers Narayan, a servant in his uncle’s house near Colombo, whom he often followed through his morning routine, eating breakfast on the street near cigarette stalls burning hemp rope. He follows that aroma on the ship one day and it leads him to the cabin of Mr. Fonseka, a reclusive scholar on his way to teach school in England, who tells the boys stories.
The ship’s most prominent passenger is Sir Hector de Silva, a philanthropist cursed by a priest he insulted and traveling to England (with two doctors and an ayurvedic) in hopes of being cured of rabies.
Mr. Nevil tells Michael more about ship dismantling, saying that after being salvaged in the “breaking yards” where he has worked, the materials are “reborn” as new products: “You take that older life and link it to a stranger.”
Miss Lasqueti, another member of the Cat’s Table, sleeps a great deal, avoids the sun, and carries some of her twenty-plus pigeons in a coat with padded pockets. Asuntha is a deaf girl, apparently “powerless,” whom the boys tease but whom Sunil takes care of and Emily befriends.
A man known as Baron C. recruits Michael to slip through stateroom transoms, body slicked with oil, to let him in to burglarize. When they enter Sir Hector de Silva’s room Michael notes the contrast between a metal bust of the knight and the comatose man himself lying on the bed. The Baron steals a portrait of the man’s daughter.
After a film screening on deck is cut short by a storm, Cassius and Michael persuade Ramadhin...
(The entire section is 2009 words.)
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