An 11-year old boy is sent from family in Ceylon to his mother who is in London. He travels alone aboard the cruise ship Oronsay, but there are people he knows on board including two other young boys, Cassius and Ramadhin, who, combined, make fast friends and lots of adventures. Others friends include his rich cousin Emily who becomes very close – and perhaps somewhat dangerous.
The “cat’s table” is where they and some others sit for dinner – it’s opposite (in all ways) to the Captain’s table. Here they hear the scuttlebutt, make friends, hide. And there’s some lying, cheating and stealing – even a murder?
En route from beginning to end of the book Ondaatje takes a few detours into the future where he is in his 30s, remembering and questioning memory. Per an author’s note (at the end!) the story is based on a trip the author made from Ceylon to London in his childhood but only the trip and the ship’s name are true. I suppose the fact that the author’s name and the 1st person narrator’s name are the same makes one wonder all the way through the book. (This trick won’t work often.)