An 11-year-old boy boards a ship in Ceylon and sails off to England to re-unite with a mother he barely remembers, setting the stage for an adventure on the high seas which in the hands of a master craftsman becomes a lyrical novel of innocence and longing. The time is the early 1950s, a simpler age, when boys were boys and three of them seated with other outcasts at the plebeian “cat’s table,” the one furthest from where the captain dines, discover jazz, listen to ribald stories and witness the glances that men and women exchange when they think no one is watching. “We were learning about adults simply by being in their midst,” says Mynah, the narrator.
On the 21-day journey, the boys follow one simple rule: to do at least one thing every day that is forbidden. Thus they lie floating on their backs in the first class pool smoking bits of cane chair as dawn lifts over the horizon. Foolishly, two of them allow the third to lash them to the front deck in anticipation of an approaching storm and then are forced to ride out a tempest so extreme that even the crew dare not attempt a rescue until the worst of the wind and heaving waves has passed. When the boys discover a shackled prisoner being escorted on deck for nightly exercise, their curiosity is peeked. Who is the man? What had he done?
Death, thievery and mystery stalk the decks along with the trio as life-long bonds are forged creating a shared past that even decades later is only partially understood. Writing with sensitivity and sentimentality, Ondaatje, the Booker prize-winning author of The English Patient, lacquers youthful memory and adult insight together to create a tale to be savored and long remembered.