MICHAEL ONDAATJE, a Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist, has spent his career depicting the lives of misfits and migrants; people often absent from official histories. With poetic language, he has inhabited the world of Toronto’s eastern European bridge-builders in the 1920s—in his early masterpiece “In the Skin of a Lion”—and of a Sikh bomb-disposal expert during the second world war in his more famous “The English Patient”, a romantic epic that was turned into a successful film.
For his sixth novel, Mr Ondaatje offers a more personal story of dislocation. Using the “colouring and locations of memoir” (as noted in an afterword), “The Cat’s Table” charts the 21-day sea voyage of an 11-year-old boy named Michael, who travels from Ceylon to England in 1954 to join a mother he has not seen for years. Mr Ondaatje made such a journey, before emigrating to Canada aged 19. His fictionalised portrait of the artist as a young man is recalled by an older, disillusioned narrator. What begins as an enchanted adventure of youth becomes freighted with trauma and loss.