An 11-year-old boy from Ceylon is put on a ship to England, to meet a mother he barely remembers. The passage will consume 21 days of his young life.
This is the story of those days.
The boy had never slept beneath a blanket or worn long pants. Stairs made him nervous. Michael Ondaatje, who himself made a passage from Ceylon to England at age 11, writes: "I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was. Perhaps a sense of self is not even there in his nervous stillness in the narrow bunk, in this green grasshopper or little cricket, as if he has been smuggled away accidentally, with no knowledge of the act, into the future."
Among the 600 people on board, the boy is assigned with eight others to Table 76, the farthest from the exalted Captain's Table. A spinster calls theirs "the cat's table," adding, "We're in the least privileged place." He doesn't care. Two other boys sit at the table, and the adults who join them there for meals are vivid and mysterious and wondrous, including a botanist, a quiet tailor, a ship dismantler and an "on the skids" piano player who likes obscene lyrics and advises them "to keep our eyes and ears open, that this voyage would be a great education."
It is at the Cat's Table, and on the ship in its wee small hours and forbidden and hidden places, that the narrator and his young companions observe adult behavior and misbehavior that will transform their lives. They resolve: "Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden." So, they hide each night to watch as a barefoot shackled prisoner is led by his guards to get exercise on an abandoned deck. The narrator observes his 17-year-old cousin, coincidentally also on board, become enthralled with a mind-reading performer who applies his dramatic makeup crouched beneath a lifeboat.
The boys even learn that in the black depths of a ship, life can miraculously grow.
Michael Ondaatje's remarkable novels, among them "The English Patient," are not famous for ease. This is perhaps his most accessible. Its first half is mostly chronological. Joyful is the only way to describe the delights and surprises and risks these boys find onboard the Oronsay. Midway, though, the novel begins to flash forward more often, and the mood darkens with hints of something profound and disturbing to come.
A few years ago, in an interview about his 2007 novel "Divisadero," Ondaatje spoke of convictions that are at the heart of this novel, as well: "At the age of 16 or 17 we are almost nothing. ... If you look back on yourself -- God! Myself at 17 was this callow, callow person. What you become 10 years or 20 years later or more is so much more complicated and good and bad and all these things. So for people to make decisions at that age or people who are judged at that age, it's a terrible thing to happen to them."
This story -- its boys, its grownups, its wit and drama -- will live with you long after you finish it. And your own life may be transformed by new memories of those odd, small moments -- visible only to the least powerful -- when suddenly everything becomes clear.