A young boy—only eleven—is sent alone by ship from Colombo to London where he will join the mother he hasn't seen in four or five years. He is nominally supervised by a woman his uncle knows, but since she is in First Class he rarely sees her. For his meals he is seated at the Cat's Table, the one farthest away from the Captain's Table and clearly reserved for the least important passengers. There he meets two other boys his age, Ramadhin and Cassius, who will become his constant companions on the voyage, and a handful of peculiar adults: a botanist, a down-and-out pianist, a silent tailor, and a woman who keeps pigeons in the pockets of her jacket.
Another person at the Cat's Table is Mr. Nevil, a retired ship dismantler, a gentle man who lets the boys pester him for details about the structure of ships. He tells them of how in a month they could make a ship disappear, pulling apart walls, carefully gathering everything that could be reused and burning the remainder. He says, “'. . . in a breaker's yard you discover anything can have a new life, be reborn as part of a car or railway carriage, or a shovel blade. You take that older life and you link it to a stranger.'”
Similarly, the boy, now grown, is dismantling the experience of this once-in-a-lifetime voyage, unpacking the past, discovering new meanings, linking it to the rest of his life. Although the narrator is named Michael and shares some biographical details with the author, Ondaatje says in an end note that this story is fiction, not a memoir.
This is a story that you can read lightly, chuckling over the boys' adventures and mourning their frayed innocence, or you can pay closer attention. The book is dense, as one person in my book club said, with motifs and themes that all tie together. There are secret wounds—literally: a scar on a belly, a weak heart—and impaired senses: a blind girl, a man who cannot speak. There are certain moments when a touch, perhaps on a shoulder in the moonlight, reveals everything. There are people who are controlled by others: the mysterious prisoner in chains, Michael's cousin Emily in thrall to her lover, a young girl subject to her father's needs. The three boys each feel the need to protect “others seemingly less secure than ourselves”.
Above all, or perhaps beneath all, lie the hidden things: the spy rumored to be on board incognito, the magician producing lost items with a flourish, the mysterious nighttime conversations the boys overhear. After a terrible storm, Michael says, “What we had witnessed was only what had been above the sea. Now something shook itself free and came into my mind. It was not only the things we could see that had no safety. There was the underneath.” Later Emily tells of a time when a wealthy American for whom she worked in Italy took her elbow and “walked me down the hall until we were in the grand Rotunda, where a sixty-foot tapestry hung. He lifted a corner and held it up so I could look at the underside, where the colors were suddenly brilliant and forceful. ‘This is where the power is, you see. Always. The underneath.'”
Ondaatje's books always reward close attention. This one, too, is a masterpiece worth reading and rereading. It is a Boy's Own adventure of knives and dogs and mischief, and at the same time a coming-of-age story. Memories are dismantled and reused; the mysterious motives and knotted hearts of adults are unwound; and the secret scars of childhood laid bare. Read it. Then read it again.