Set in the early 1950s, Michael, 11, is traveling from his home in Sri Lanka to England to see his mother after many years of separation. Nicknamed “Mynah” by his shipmates, he sets off on a 21-day journey to his new home.
“What had there been before such a ship in my life?” Mynah asks himself.
The name of the book comes from the “least privileged place” in the dining room of the ship, the furthest table from the Captain’s Table. Mynah is assigned to the Cat’s Table for his meals while aboard the ship.
Mynah becomes friends with two other boys on board the ship: the bold, brave Cassius, and the quiet, careful Ramadhin. They quickly get up to no good, making a vow to do one forbidden thing per day. Ondaatje eloquently captures the secrets of the passengers on board through the scope of Mynah and his friends.
The most compelling secret uncovered by the boys is the identity of the ship’s prisoner.
They watch from a lifeboat hanging far above the deck every night, as he is marched out on “midnight walks.” The boys speculate about his crimes, where he is going and why. The prisoner is an excellent example of how Ondaatje keeps suspense alive throughout the novel, and it works very well in the context of this story because the reader discovers a little more about the prisoner each time he appears.
Ondaatje makes excellent use of a non-linear plot, going back and forth in time to explain how events on the ship shape Mynah’s life when he is older. It’s this masterful type of storytelling that has helped Ondaatje win several awards, and earned him a spot on the Giller Prize shortlist.
The book, though strictly fictional, has many parallels to Ondaatje’s life — both the author and main character share the same name, birthplace, emigrated to England as children, and settled in Canada as adults. But whether or not some elements of the story are based on reality, the characters, places, and emotions all feel real enough to be based on Ondaatje’s memories.
The reader gets much more out of this book than just a story. And while there is enough excitement to keep readers interested, certainly don’t expect a new twist on every page.
Ondaatje has a wonderful balance of calm, collected, and thought-provoking moments laced in with the rest of the story as well. The tension between the past and the present is a theme Ondaatje uses extremely well. In this coming-of-age tale, the story is vivid, the characters come to life and their emotions are genuine. Alhough the voyage on the Oronsay lasts only 21 days, the experience is one that resounds with Mynah and his friends for the rest of their lives.
— Photo courtesy of bostonbookfestival