[T]his lovely, shimmering book…is a tender meditation on how a child can be "smuggled away accidentally, with no knowledge of the act, into the future"…Mr. Ondaatje succeeds so well in capturing the anticipation and inquisitiveness of boyhood.
Janet Maslin - New York Times
In Ondaatje’s best novel since his Booker Prize winning The English Patient, an 11-year-old boy sets off on a voyage from Ceylon to London, where his mother awaits. Though Ondaatje tells us firmly in the “Author’s Note” that the story is “pure invention,” the young boy is also called Michael, was also born in Ceylon, and also grows up to become a writer. This air of the meta adds a gorgeous, modern twist to the timeless story of boys having an awfully big adventure: young Michael meets two children of a similar age on the Oronsay, Cassius and Ramadhin, and together the threesome gets up to all kinds of mischief on the ship, with, and at the expense of, an eccentric set of passengers. But it is Michael’s older, beguiling cousin, Emily, also onboard, who allows him glimpses of the man he is to become. As always, Ondaatje’s prose is lyrical, but here it is tempered; the result is clean and full of grace, such as in this description of the children having lashed themselves to the deck to experience a particularly violent storm: "our heads were stretched back to try to see how deep the bow would go on its next descent. Our screams unheard, even to each other, even to ourselves, even if the next day our throats were raw from yelling into that hallway of the sea."
"The journey was to be an innocent story within the small parameter of my youth," says the narrator of his voyage aboard the Oronsay, which carried him through the Indian Ocean to England and his divorced mother. But for 11-year-old Michael, things shift from the moment he is seated at "the cat's table," the least propitious spot in the dining room. Michael enjoys wild escapades with the two other boys at the table, quiet Ramadhin and hell-raiser Cassius, while befriending the mismatched adults at his table as well as his card-playing roommate, who tends the ship's kennels. Others on board include Michael's older cousin Emily, who takes up with the magnetic head of a performing troupe while protecting a deaf and frail-looking girl named Asuntha, and a heavily chained prisoner. The relationship among these four characters precipitates crisis, but we're not led to it systematically; instead, Booker Prize winner Ondaatje (Anil's Ghost) flashes forward to Michael as an adult, showing us how unwittingly we lose our childhood innocence and how that loss comes to affect us much, much later. Verdict: Writing in a less lyrically wrought style than usual, Ondaatje turns in a quietly enthralling work. Highly recommended. —Barbara Hoffert
This being a novel by the eminently accomplished Ondaatje, you may be certain that the tale will involve some tragedy, some heartache, and some miscommunication—and, yes, death. It is also beautifully detailed, without a false note: It is easy to imagine, in Ondaatje’s hands, being a passenger in the golden age of transoceanic voyaging, amid a sea of cocktail glasses and overflowing ashtrays, if in this case a setting more worthy of John le Carré than Noël Coward. Ondaatje writes with considerable tenderness of children who are all but abandoned, and at his best he lands squarely in Conrad territory, a place that smells of frankincense and in which "clotted clouds speckled the sky" and sandstorms blow out to sea from distant deserts—just the sort of place, in other words, that a reader wants to inhabit. Elegiac, mature and nostalgic—a fine evocation of childhood, and of days irretrievably past.
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