One of the great fallacies of the coming-of-age story is that it often relies on the idea that boys and girls become men and women mindfully.
But how often is this true? Is not the passage from childhood to what comes afterward somewhat watery, its boundaries and ports a bit more mysterious?
Of all the writers to understand this truth, Michael Ondaatje has funneled it into a book with the most apparent ease. His new novel, “The Cat’s Table,’’ is a joy and a lark to read, and it portrays this monumental transition like something provisional, a journey along a one-way channel revealed to be so only at the last minute. When one cannot turn back.
The book tells the tale of an 11-year-old boy named Michael who is on a boat trip from Colombo, Sri Lanka, to England in 1954. In the sections that take place on the boat, we are entirely in a boy’s head and feverish point of view.
It is also told by a Michael 50 years later, when he has become a celebrated writer and lives in Canada. His long past is behind him, but emigration has marked him. He has never truly felt at home anywhere in the world.
One doesn’t need to flip to the back jacket photograph of the Booker Prize winning, Sri Lankan-born Ondaatje to feel a certain resonance.
“The Cat’s Table’’ expertly strums these cords of autobiography without overdoing it. As a result this small, and beautifully minor book, vibrates with the borrowed intimacy of real life. It also never force-feeds its young hero with wisdom he could not have acquired or stolen at such an age.
Ondaatje so cleverly moves between these two points of view that within a few pages of the book’s opening, “The Cat’s Table’’ has done a miraculous thing - it has ceased to be a book, or even a piece of art. It is merely a story, unfolding before the reader’s eyes, its churning motor a mystery about what it is exactly that happened on this boat.
“The Cat’s Table’’ evokes all the familiar resonances of an adventure story. Michael is an eavesdropper, a prank-player, a rapscallion en route from one form of guardianship to another. Like so many boys raised beyond the parameters of parental control, he has become an observer by nature, and a curiosity-seeker as a way to alleviate paralytic bouts of boredom.
The Oronsay, the boat on which Michael travels, gives him plenty to watch. The ship’s passengers contain a fearsome prisoner, a dying aristocrat, and an undercover police officer. Each night, Michael and two friends dine at the cat’s table, the dinner spot farthest from the captain’s in the ship’s ballroom. They are joined by a musician with a foul mouth, a pale-skinned socialite, and a tailor who doesn’t speak.
This set-up seems designed to mimic the tidy parameters of a detective story, a form this book - in its satisfyingly brisk closing pages - actually begins to resemble. Here is a table of dubious characters. Something bad will occur. Who will be blamed?
But “The Cat’s Table’’ is more than a simple whodunit. It is a book about youth, and how the way we depart this period of our life determines who we become for the rest of our days.
Michael is not entirely alone on the Oronsay. His beautiful teenage cousin, Emily, is there, as is a wealthy aunt who inhabits the upper class births. Over the course of the journey, Michael’s curiosity about the worlds they both represent grows.
Rather than describe this passage head-on, Ondaatje allows his young narrator to experience this opening up of his world, refracted through the unusual and somewhat carnivalesque happenings aboard the ship, and the way this young man is watching his past recede like land from view.
Michael, as it turns out, is not just an observer, but a sensualist too. Even at 11, he has already learned the erotic rhythms of memory. “[T]he truth is grandeur had not been added to my life but had been taken away,’’ he describes, at the beginning of his journey.
“As night approached, I missed the chorus of insects, the howls of garden birds, gecko talk. And at dawn, the rain in the trees, the wet tar on Bullers Road, rope burning on the street that was always one of the first palpable smells of the day.’’
If one could level any criticism at Ondaatje’s prose, it would be that he has often believed that such smells and sensations could alone make a story. “Anil’s Ghost’’ and certainly the latter half of his novel “Divisadero’’ become too fragmentary. They both feature beautiful writing, but the reader is doing too much of the work to make them into narratives.
“The Cat’s Table’’ never suffers from this problem, because this is a book about how the passage of time and distance makes one choose a narrative to his or her own life. Told in short bursts of exposition so beautiful one actually feels the urge to slow the reading down, the novel shows us how the boy assembles the man.
Much later in the book, after Michael and his mates have gotten involved in something truly dark, the narrator reveals that there is more to his observation than mere sensuality. He is searching for the components of that story.
“There is a story,’’ he writes, “always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it, and feed it.’’ And I suppose occasionally, if one is very, very observant, and somewhat lucky, too, can you make of that search a tale as roundly enjoyable as “The Cat’s Table.’’John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of “The Tyranny of E-mail’’.