In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy boards a huge liner bound for England – a ‘castle that was to cross the sea’. At mealtimes, he is placed at the lowly ‘Cat's Table’ with an eccentric group of grown-ups and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. As the ship makes its way across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, the boys become involved in the worlds and stories of the adults around them, tumbling from one adventure and delicious discovery to another, ‘bursting all over the place like freed mercury’. And at night, the boys spy on a shackled prisoner – his crime and fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever.
The most powerful feature of this book for me is how poetic the language is. The lyricism of it, the almost dreamy quality of the narrative make this novel an experience of poetry in prose and the character's voyages throughout the book only become richer for it.
The novel's protagonist, Michael, tells the reader about the trip that changed his life both literally and figuratively when he was only 11 years old, although I didn't get a feeling that it was a journey of self-discovery in any sense. The boy simply experiences the adventures of the voyage and the adult reminisces about them and the events that followed, in a way wrapping things up for the characters, telling the reader where they ended up and how. Curiously enough the adult Michael is a writer, and Ondaatje himself arrived in England from Colombo when he was 11 on a ship called the Oronsay, just like the boy in the novel does. There is some speculation about whether the novel is autobiographical in a lot of ways and although the author hasn't confirmed or denied this I am inclined to believe that it is indeed autobiographical, however fictionalized and dramatized, especially in terms of a child experiencing life without direct adult influence and an adult fully understanding the real impact and meaning of those childhood experiences.
Michael's story is intertwined with stories of other passengers, many of whom aren't who they seem to be at first and whose presence makes for a multi-layered narrative. This reminded me of The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, who employs a similar story-within-a-story structure, and if you've been following the blog you'll remember that I enjoyed that book a lot. My favorite story-in-a-story was that of Miss Lasqueti, I found it even more touching and fascinating than that of the prisoner. Possibly that's because it is more subtle, there is no life or death drama and secrets in it, yet it got to me and made me think about the events of Miss Lasqueti's life and their undeniable effects.
There is quite a bit of jumping back and forth in time so if you usually have trouble with that - be prepared. It wasn't a problem for me at all, I actually enjoyed it because it gave the story a more mature feeling, clarified in a way why the 11-year-old protagonist didn't seem exactly pre-teen. After all it is an adult looking back through time at the child, reliving the experiences through the memories, offering insight that he wouldn't have had all those years ago.
This was one of the books I listened to as opposed to reading, and although having the author do the narration was very special because I knew that the intonations, pauses and pronunciations were done exactly as intended I think this is a book that should be read, be that on paper or eReader, especially if you are a person whose visual perception is better than audio perception. As I've mentioned before the writing is extremely beautiful and if you look up quotes from this book online you'll see exactly what I mean. I myself will be picking up this book again, this time soaking it all in from the page.