It’s a charming mixture of eccentricity, serendipity and impish fun. “Twenty-one days is a very brief period in a life,” the narrator admits, but Ondaatje folds all the boys’ escapades into the human comedy. “We considered ourselves good at vacuuming up clues as we coursed over the ship each day,” he writes. These crisp vignettes convey a delightful sense of the urgency and mystery of adolescence, their galloping imagination, thumping anticipation and assurance that every overhead whisper is a conspiracy, a forbidden tryst or a murder in the planning stages. “Who realizes,” the narrator asks, “how contented feral children are?”
I can’t imagine why the Man Booker judges included “Pigeon English” among the finalists for this year’s prize instead of this vastly more sophisticated story of a boy’s adventure. While Stephen Kelman’s novel collapses at the end, Ondaatje’s turns on little cat’s feet. The tone grows darker, the drama more treacherous. Wisps of rumor that Michael and his friends have breathlessly collected erupt in a climax that outstrips their childish fantasies. How frighteningly the pieces of this puzzle snap into place, and we’re left staring just as dumbstruck as young Michael at a melodramatic tableau. “Was it all part of a boy’s fervent imagination?” the narrator asks. Or did the violence and sacrifice he witnessed on that ship exceed his capacity to understand?