I love the cover on this book. The font, the sepia tones, the old-fashioned liner being tossed atop a sea that looks askew, all hint at a journey of the past that did not go smoothly. The story is told in the first person from the perspective of an older man recalling the past; it is of himself as an 11 year old leaving his life in Sri Lanka to join his mother in England. "Some events take a lifetime to reveal their damage and influence." He must go alone on a 3 week journey by ship. He is still a child, but childhood is ready to fall behind him. Strong friendships develop quickly in the concentrated atmosphere of shipboard relationships. Childish exploits blend with adult events but the nature of these confusing times can never be properly understood or placed in context by the young still struggling to understand the grown-up world that surrounds them. "Sometimes we find our true and inherent selves during youth. It is a recognition of something that at first is small within us, that we will grow into somehow." We are taken back and forth from his childhood perspective to his adult one as he puzzles out the meanings of various shipboard incidents culminating in a shocking action.
The first half of the book especially felt like a series of short sharp episodes, standing out in relief against a blurred background. Ondaatje's prose as usual is smooth and effortless. "In our twenties we are busy becoming other people."