Michael Ondaatje's new novel describes the three-week sea journey between Sir Lanka (then Ceylon) and England undertaken in 1954 by an 11-year-old boy called Michael, who grows up to be a writer based in Canada. There is an Author's Note warning that although the book sometimes uses "the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography", everything in it, including the narrator, is fictional. This is a common manoeuvre in contemporary fiction, but strange nevertheless, the author raising a hand in stern deterrence of the confusion he has fostered so carefully.Michael is travelling to England to be reunited with his mother. A lady in first class (a family friend) has been asked to keep an eye out for him, and his cousin Emily, 17, is also on board, but his companions are two boys of roughly his age, Ramadhin and Cassius, one quiet and the other extroverted. All three are assigned for their meals to a table so far from the captain's that a fellow-diner describes it as "the cat's table".It is inevitable that an unaccompanied 11-year-old should experience a long sea voyage between continents as a rite of passage, but the journey is eventful in its own right. There is a thief on board posing as an aristocrat; a mysterious prisoner and a daring plan to set him free; undercover policemen, acrobats, a businessman under a curse and a rabid dog that knows just where to find him. All the trappings, in fact, of an old-fashioned adventure story for boys.The narrative is insecurely rooted in the character of Michael. The point of view drifts to other people — at times passing from hand to hand like the baton in a relay race. However, even when the point of view stays with him it is deceptive.Michael is described in the opening pages as being "green as he could be about the world" when he climbed aboard "the first and only ship of his life". Absolute greenness is relative, just the same, since later we learn that "a boy of eleven, like any experienced dog, can read the gestures of those around him, can see the power in a relationship drift back and forth". The boy's intuitions are supplemented by generalisations about behaviour, appeals to shared experience which will either command dazzled assent from the reader or baffled shrugs: "We all have an old knot in the heart we wish to loosen and untie"; "sometimes we find our true and inherent selves during youth"; "when we are searching for an example of what we no longer have, we see it everywhere." If you say so.Everything changed on the Oronsay, not only for Michael but for Emily, for a lady marksman and pigeon-fancier called Perinetta Lasqueti, for the prisoner and the cursed millionaire as well. Cassius, who went on to become a painter, seemed relatively unchanged, but his abstract compositions turn out to be refractions of scenes and events from the voyage. The book's preferred word for change is the more muted alteration, as in: "I thought I was being loved because I was being altered" or "It would always be strangers like them, at the various Cat's Tables of my life, who would alter me."Shadowing the theme of alteration, equally sonorous and hollow, is that of safety. "It was not only the things we could see that had no safety. There was the underneath." A rich collector says: "This art feels safe, doesn't it? ... But art is never safe."The collector is referring specifically to one of his priceless tapestries, and goes on to lift a corner of it to show the brilliant colours underneath. Working on it kept a hundred women alive in 1530, during a Flanders winter. "That is what gives truth, depth, to this sentimental tableau."Perhaps The Cat's Table aspires to a similar doubleness of texture and meaning, the yarn of adventure story backed with the colours of adult experience, but on the level of craftsmanship it doesn't measure up.