Some evenings when I pick up my October feature read, The Cat's Table, I feel like a spectator at a variety show.
Usually I turn to my bookmark and begin reading a three or five page vignette in which one of the passengers on board the Oronsay for its voyage from Ceylon to the United Kingdom in 1954, enters at stage left, performs some intriguing little tease and then waltzes off again. Next player please.
I'm about a third of the way through and while it's not yet clear how author Michael Ondaatje will ultimately stitch these little set pieces into an overall design, the voyage is shaping up to be quite an education for the three unaccompanied adolescent boys, Mynah, Ramadhin and Cassius.
Mynah, our narrator, is 11 years old at the time of the journey, on the verge of leaving childhood behind. He and his two companions carve out a sense of freedom and invisibility from the ships confines, vowing to do at least one forbidden thing each day and finding ways to observe the adult world in secret.
And what adults. There's Mr Mazappa, the somewhat jaundiced pianist on "the skids," who might reach down to grab Mynah's wet arm as he completes a lap of the swimming pool and dispense some unsolicited advice regarding the ways of women. Mr Mazappa claims to be protecting him by sharing what he knows, but instead leaves Mynah feeling "wounded in advance with possibilities."
There's Flavia Prins, a first class passenger whose husband is a friend of Mynah's uncle. She's pledged to keep an eye on the boy, but on their rare encounters seems more concerned with maintaining an air of superiority and being in-the-know.
Then there's the shackled prisoner brought up on deck to exercise at night, and Sir Hector de Silva, the wealthy entreprenuer en route to London's Harley Street in search of medical salvation.
The story is told not by the 11 year old Mynah, but by his older and perhaps wiser self reflecting on the journey, so it's hard to get a true sense of the 11 year old's perspective. The older Mynah claims that his younger self "did realise" that people like the young teacher he befriends, Mr Fonseka, "came before us like innocent knights in a more dangerous time, and on the very same path we ourselves were taking now, and at every step there were no doubt the same lessons, not poems, to learn brutally by heart."
Could the young Mynah truly be so knowing as his older self professes him to be? Other aspects of his adolescent character are more convincing, such as his growing awareness of the charms of the opposite sex and the powerful effect infatuation can have upon even grown men.
The vast cast of eccentric characters and frequent movements back and forth through time keep the reader on his or her toes. This can be confusing, but there is also a strong sense of fun and intrigue, and a feeling that anything could happen next.
Next Friday, look out for my Q&A with Michael Ondaatje. In the meantime, Bronwyn's October feature read, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is the bookies' favourite for the Man Booker prize which will be announced this weekend.
You can read Bronwyn's thoughts about the book on Tuesday.
- Herald online