Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2009
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.
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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 to tie them to the deck with ropes. After some hours surviving the lashing waves, they are discovered and rescued by the crew. When reprimanded by the captain, Cassius claims someone in masks had tied them there. Michael’s attempts to lie about the incident to Flavia Prins disgust her.
The ship lands for a day at Aden, and only men and the children in their care are permitted six hours ashore. The boys convince Mr. Daniels to escort them but quickly ditch him, returning just in time with Mr. Daniels and Emily, who has come ashore wearing a fake mustache. Ramadhin has smuggled aboard a small dog. The next morning the little dog escapes into first class and bites Sir Hector de Silva’s throat, killing him, then disappears. Michael spends the next morning with Emily in her cabin, telling her about the dog—the first of a life-long string of confessions between them. Years later, in London, Emily confesses she has dark dreams. Michael muses that she seems to have an unreachable, distant quality even in her frankness.
The captain blames Mr. Hastie for the dog bite that killed de Silva, demoting the kennel master to maintenance. The boys resume watching the prisoner’s nighttime walks, and Emily tells Michael the man’s name is Niemeyer, though he is clearly Asian.
De Silva is buried at sea just before the Oronsay approaches the Suez Canal. It enters the channel at midnight; Michael and Cassius stay up all night watching the passage from the railing, fascinated by the flurry of activity under electric lights: paperwork scribbled and flung aboard, cargo loaded on and off. Though Michael never sees Cassius again after the voyage, years later in London he visits an exhibit of Cassius’ paintings and realizes that they were all depictions of what the boys saw that night in the Canal, painted from their perspective on the railing.
The next chapter is another flashback: Michael returns to London for Ramadhin’s funeral, finding that his friend died in a questionable situation, apparently smitten with a fourteen-year-old girl he was tutoring. Michael reflects on his own “cold heart,” saying he remains aloof even from those he loves. After the funeral Michael spends time with Ramadhin’s sister Massi, and they eventually marry. The marriage does not last.
Some time later Michael meets with Heather Cave, Ramadhin’s girl, trying to understand Ramadhin’s death.
Mr. Mazappa had left the ship at Port Said, as had the Baron with Hector de Silva’s daughter. Michael becomes more curious about Miss Lasqueti. He sees Emily becoming more involved with Sunil. Mr. Daniels organizes a dinner party in his garden in the hold for the Cat’s Table members and Emily, Asuntha, and the ayurvedic. Michael sees Emily and Asuntha whispering about some kind of plan, and Emily says in surprise, “He’s your father?” Mr. Gunesekera, a mute but attentive tailor with a scarf covering his scarred neck, also seems to have overheard.
We now learn Asuntha’s background: her father, the prisoner Niemeyer, was an active criminal, rarely home, and her mother went insane. After visiting her father in prison, the girl walked until she found her Aunt Pacipia camped out with a circus troupe, which the girl joined. Some years later, Sunil was present when Asuntha, now seventeen, struck her head during an acrobatic fall and lost her hearing. Sunil later found her at Niemeyer’s trial, where the prisoner told her he must travel on the Oronsay. She committed her life to his cause.
One night, as the boys hide in a lifeboat, they hear bits of conversation between Emily and Sunil—enough to realize they are plotting something. We learn that two officials, an Englishman named Giggs and an incognito Sri Lankan named Perera, are aboard to guard against the prisoner’s escape.
Cassius and Michael think they see Miss Lasqueti with a small pistol. Years later Michael finds a photo of her at a gun club; he also receives a package from her containing a long letter for him to send on to Emily. Michael reads it and discovers that, when younger, Miss Lasqueti had been the mistress of a wealthy American art collector in Italy. Enraged by the man’s treatment of his own son, she tried to stab him with scissors, but he diverted the blow and she was wounded in the side. Miss Lasqueti had written this letter on the Oronsay as a warning to Emily that she had never delivered.
Cassius and Michael again hide in a lifeboat and overhear Emily talking with a man who says he is Perera. Emily sounds drowsy; a scuffle ensues, and when they climb out of the boat later they find a man’s body. The next day not even a bloodstain is left on the deck. Michael visits Emily, who seems drugged and unaware of who Mr. Perera was.
That night when the prisoner comes out for his walk, he grabs one of the guards and threatens to break his neck; this forces both guards to unchain the man's neck and legs, leaving only his hands shackled. As the moon comes out, Asuntha steps from the shadows, and then the night watchman discovers the scene. Niemeyer grabs his daughter and runs to the stern railing. Giggs, the English official, fires a pistol into the air and lights come on. Giggs aims at the prisoner and demands that he put the girl down; all eyes are on him and Niemeyer when another shot is fired, hitting Giggs, who drops his gun. Michael follows Emily’s eyes and catches a glimpse of Miss Lasqueti tossing something overboard. Then the prisoner, still holding his daughter, jumps into the Mediterranean. Michael realizes Emily has known all along what she was watching, though she says nothing. Only years later does Michael piece it all together.
Michael reunites with Emily after 15 years. Divorced, she has retired to a solitary cabin in British Columbia. Michael asks about her role in the prisoner’s escape, but she seems unsure of what happened and reluctant to discuss it. She does reveal that Perera was posing as the tailor, Mr. Gunesekera; Michael reflects that “lost corners of stories” make sense after many years, reassembled like the materials of broken ships into new forms. Emily had always assumed she had killed Perera but now is uncertain. She also is not sure that Asuntha died; she reveals that Asuntha had in her mouth the key to Niemeyer’s manacles.
Leaving Emily, Michael imagines the prisoner and his daughter in the Mediterranean water as the Oronsay pulls away, passing the key in a kiss—she swimming away from him toward the shore, he desperately trying to unlock his chains.
Michael dedicates the story to Cassius, “the other friend of my youth,” reflecting that all three boys “had a desire to protect others seemingly less secure than ourselves.”
Upon docking in the Thames, the boys leave the ship and each other without a farewell. Michael finds his mother and Emily says a brief goodbye.