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...
(The entire section is 2009 words.)
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