Michael is on a long journey to England, to meet his mother.  He can’t remember what she looks like. In the early 1950’s it is a 21 day journey by boat from Ceylon to London. He has almost no supervision though he is only 11 years old. For meals he sits a the cat’s table; the table where the lease important people sit. There he meets two great friends Ramadhin and Cassius as well as a group of eccentric and intriguing passengers. The boys have all kinds of adventures on this huge ocean liner. The three boys make a vow: each day they will do at least one forbidden thing. They stay up to midnight to see the prisoner take fresh air and exercise while locked down in chains. They strapped themselves to the deck to feel the wrath of a tropical storm. They sneaked into first class buffets to eat the superior food, later leaving their dishes in the safety boats.  Having nothing else to do, one night the boys snap off twigs from a cane chair to light and suck on like cigarettes. They plan on smoking the whole chair before their voyage ends. “There was darkness all around us but we knew how to walk through it. We slid silently into the swimming pool, relit our twigs, and floated on our backs. Silent as corpses we looked at the stars. We felt we were swimming in the sea, rather than a walled-in pool in the middle of the ocean.”

The adult characters that populate Ondaatje’s book are also wonderful. There is Mr. Mazappa, a half-Sicilian pianist who has “hit the skids.”  Botanist Larry Daniels keeps a garden hidden in the ship’s bowels, the brilliant greens and golds dazzling amid the shipboard palette of blue and grey. Miss Lasqueti sketches life on board and carries pigeons within the 10 cushioned pockets of her jacket.

Truly a great read.

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