This novel is written in an autobiographical style in the first person but is entirely fiction. That isn't unique but Ondaatje takes it to a level I haven't encountered before, with subtleties so clever that I was sure it was biographical until I read the Author's Note at the end. I could have checked online at any time but resisted, wanting to keep puzzling out the strong autobiographical clues with the increasingly surreal storyline.
It's an amazing, complex book about three 12-year-old boys who travel more or less on their own on a ship from India to England. Ondaatje's inventiveness almost defies the imagination; fiction is definitely stranger than life in this instance but yet so lifelike that my mind was messed around quite a bit. The Alice-in-Wonderland strangeness of the characters and the constant loose ends of the plot (as in life) reminded me somewhat of Life of Pi, but this book is much richer in human interest, character development and relationships. In the last third of the book Ondaatje switches back and forth between present, past and future, but very well, so you always understand where you are and how many years ago something happened.
It's a unique read. I loved the last two lines of the book, which he writes as a dedication to two of the characters, one of them a dog:
The boat came breasting out of the mist and in they stepped.
All new things in life were meant to come like that...
This is a beautiful description of some of the new things that have happened in my life this past year. Although I feel a healthy sense of agency and know I shaped events, in the end they emerged naturally out of the mist, and I stepped in with no extended agonies of decision. All new things in life were meant to come like that.