Astounding One of the best novels I ve ever read Ondaatje does things with language that should be almost illegal, giving us scenes that can be at the same time lush and heartbreakingly stark, weaving in and out of different timeframes and contexts with the fluidity and free association of memory His depictions of the hard work these characters undertake in early 20th Century Canada bridge building, logging, tunnel drilling under Lake Ontario in order to build a water purification plant have a scale, a daring and a sense of the concrete and muscular that are beyond compare And in between all of this, he gives us a sweet and sad story of immigrants, torn between destitution and the promise of the New World, between loves past and loves present, between rich and poor, that are vivid, precise, lived in You will remember many scenes in this book for weeks the nuns being tossed around by the wind on an unfinished bridge, a daring escape from prison, a confrontation ending in a molotov cocktail between a rich man who wants to disappear and the searcher that is looking for him to retrieve the woman he loves, and a final denouement at the Palace of Purification that is at the same time sad, thrilling and reaffirming of the basic decency of a human being Superb. In the Skin of a Lion is a hazy, dreamlike novel, which transports its readers to the city of Toronto in the early 20th century This is the time when countless immigrants came to the city escaping misery, wars and poverty that was their daily life in the Old World The glimmering lights of the New World shore brightly across the ocean, and they journeyed across it for weeks, seduced by their promises of a new and better life These masses of immigrants often poor and uneducated built, formed and shaped the city into a vibrant multicultural metropolis that it is now They had only their hopes and dreams, but they also had the will and strength to make them real The hard labor of these men and women is directly responsible for the creation of countries that have since developed and prospered, but the very people who made them are mostly unmentioned and forgotten by history.Ondaatje s novel is fiction, but filled with real events which took place in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada during that time the construction of the Prince Edward Viaduct between Bloor Street and Danforth Avenue suppression of workers strikes and demonstrations by the police chief Dennis Draper the murders of Viljo Rosvall and Janne Voutilainen, two Finnish Canadian labor unionists, and the mysterious disappearance of Ambrose Smalls a famous theare magnate who owned several venues across Ontario, and whose disappearance was never solved even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was involved in it at one time, but ultimately chose not to pursue the case Oondaatje apparently spent months in the City of Toronto archives to research material for the novel and the best part is that a lot of material has been digitized and can be accessed online here, allowing us to see Toronto s history for ourselves including the earliest known photographs of the city.Ondaatje introduces several characters, some of which will appear again in his later novel, The English Patient Sometimes their stories touch and correlate and sometimes they don t, dissolving like wisps of spider silk in the early morning sunlight I suspect that years from now it will be difficult for me to remember the details of the novel, but what will stay with me are the images Ondaatje manages to conjure swiftly and without any real effort a group of Scandinavian immigrants skating across a frozen river in a small town in Northern Ontario, defying its wilderness and iciness wind throwing off a nun from an unfinished bridge, and a brave builder who risks his life to save her a man escaping from prison and into the country, staying by himself in remote lakeside houses, the silence and vastness of the area having an almost preternatural quality Is this how pioneers felt Like many immigrants the novel searches for its own goal but doesn t find it, leaving us with a collection of brief insights into the lives of its characters and surrounding Still, Ondaatje in places writers well enough to warrant an extra star, and I look forward to reading of his work. Ondaatje is incredibly familiar He has the schizophrenic narrative of Faulkner and the fragmented working class romanticism of Raymond Carver Its interesting how much I adore Ondaatje while he reminds me of one of my mortal enemies I m talking to you Faulkner His visual brand of prose poetry reminds me of a filmmaker than a writer His nostalghic exploration of Canada, and specifically Toronto increased the book s appeal for me I had a hard time getting into Ondaatje s world, to a point where I had to give up on Anil s Ghost after reading a hundred pages or so but having become familiar with his working class eroticism, and his signature ethereal narrative, I ve grown quite fond of his style. The writing, the manner by which the author has woven fact into a fictional tale and the book s central message explain why I like this book as much as I do We are given a story that is carefully planned and well executed Every detail is there for a purpose Even section titles have been carefully considered The finished product is very good We are told at the start that every novel should begin with the line Trust me, this will take time, but there is order here, very faint, very human Not every novel can successfully fulfill such a promise This one does.The writing alone is worth four stars Ondaatje draws scenes that readers will not forget One that stands out for me are skaters, on a creek, in the dark of night, each holding a sheaf of blazing cats tails before them These skaters we lean later to be Finnish immigrants Two women playfully, and lovingly, wrestling together is another scene I will not forget Sexual encounters are drawn with the brush of an artist The scenes are not only beautifully drawn, but they also tie well into the tale They are both beautiful and important.This is a book of historical fiction, its purpose being to draw attention to immigrant labor in the Americas, a group of people whose work should be applauded and given the recognition they merit Without them our cities would not be what they are today History often fails to give immigrants the merit they are due The novel looks at Toronto in the beginning of the 20th century the building of the Prince Edward Viaduct and the R.C Harris Water Treatment Plant by immigrant labor with poor pay and working conditions Little or no concern is taken in regards to their living quarters The Prince Edward Viaduct is also known as the Bloor Viaduct Who were these men and women who built our cities What were their lives like It is this that is the central theme of the book.True facts are seamlessly woven into the fictional tale They do not stick out They are not excessive They do not smother the story We learn of R.C Harris, the bridge s designer and commissioner of public works in Toronto at this time The viaduct was to be a double decked truss arched bridge, carrying water, electricity and traffic and linking eastern Toronto with the city center As readers, we are there in the construction of the bridge, alongside immigrant labor We learn of events that were in the news while the bridge was being built the fall of a nun from the as yet incomplete bridge, the disappearance of Ambrose Small a bigwig theater owner , labor union meetings and the murder of labor union activists Ondaatje spent months studying the City of Toronto archives and newspapers He has taken the known and the unknown and woven the two into a fictional tale It is up to the reader to search the net to discover what has been stretched The story is so convincingly written that originally, I thought that all was absolutely true The English Patient came out before In the Skin of a Lion The latter may be considered a prequel to the former I would recommend reading In the Skin of a Lion first In it we learn about the two characters Hana and Caravaggio Both turn up again in The English Patient I think I would have found them interesting had I known of their earlier experiences.The audiobook is narrated by Tom McCamus I have given the narration performance four stars It is clear and easy to follow, but different intonations are not used for different characters You must listen to the words for an indication of who is talking You cannot even hear if the person peaking is male or female women and men sound the same This was of little importance to me, but others may object Ondaatje draws a tale that has captivated me It does demand attention The reader follows different characters and there are time shifts, but one s efforts are rewarded This is a fine tale one that I thoroughly enjoyed The writing is splendid Books I have read by Michael Ondaatje In the Skin of a Lion 4 starsThe English Patient 4 starsAnil s Ghost 4 starsRunning in the Family 3 starsDivisadero 3 sarsWarlight TBR A full five star endorsement for a novel that has a mesmeric, hallucinatory quality Images as powerful and poignant as a dream, narrative that slips and weaves and ducks between people, places and time, and an impressive sweep of invention that catches the breath Ondaatje uncovers the story of those whose labour created Toronto landmarks in the early twentieth century, deftly knitting up truth and myth, revealing the lives of those who were forgotten in the official version of history Actually,The English Patient is one of the few books in my reading life that I never finished I don t think I ever really took note of the book until the film came out, so it must have been 1996, when we had just moved back to Germany from Austria, because I have a clear memory of trying to read it in bed on a mattress on the floor With moving and coping with all that entails, I know I was only reading a few pages in bed at night before falling into a coma After three weeks of this where it seemed to me that nothing whatever had happened, I gave up I was amazed at how political In the Skin of a Lion is, I had Ondaatje down in my mind as a somewhat artsy poetic type that uses a lot of words to skirt the ineffable How wrong I was. A book full of sights and , signifying much, including, and in a big way, one of my favorite themes that of the little people, the ones behind the scenes of history, the ones we ll never know.After reading this book, I feel like I ve been to Ontario and in particular Toronto during the early 20th century Toronto is a teeming, vibrant multicultural community, so much so that the main character from backwoods Ontario feels like the outsider Though to be completely accurate, he probably would ve felt like an outsider no matter where he ended up, such was his upbringing and outlook.Be patient with this book if the beginning seems a bit slow or meandering You will be hugely rewarded As one of the quotes I ve marked from this says The first sentence of every novel should be Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human Meander if you want to get to town.And as I neared the end and realized where we were headed, I also realized I d forgotten where we started, because in between how we get from the beginning to the end is a dazzling feast, and feat. There is a scene, in the very beginning of this book, during which Patrick Lewis, primary voice among the the half dozen or so protagonists, watches Scandinavian men skate home over a frozen river on a dark winter s night in Northern Ontario, carrying handfuls of burning cattails over their heads Ondaatje, who is the rare poet capable of writing great fiction, describes the scene thusly It was not just the pleasure of skating They could have done that during the day This was against the night The hard ice was so certain, they could leap into the air and crash down and it would hold them their lanterns replaces with new rushes which let them go further past boundaries, speed romance one man waltzing with his fire And thus it begins Dancing with the elements A wind catching the skirts of a young nun and sending her spinning out into the air and into the arms of a daredevil bridge builder Great explosions underwater and on land Escape through water and betrayal by it So much of this book exists on the perilous edge between something fear and whimsy I ve certainly never found any other book in which the acts of destruction felt so balletic Nuns,actresses, missing millionaires, orphan girls, burglars, radicals, immigrants and great marvels of engineering For a slim book that often reads like poetry, there s an awful lot going on here You hardly know where to look And it is absolutely exquisite. Bristling With Intelligence And Shimmering With Romance, This Novel Tests The Boundary Between History And Myth Patrick Lewis Arrives In Toronto In The S And Earns His Living Searching For A Vanished Millionaire And Tunneling Beneath Lake Ontario In The Course Of His Adventures, Patrick S Life Intersects With Those Of Characters Who Reappear In Ondaatje S Booker Prize Winning The English Patient Pp I got through the first fifty or so pages solely because of the poetic language of this book Otherwise I would have meandered my way, got lost somewhere, looked around for help, and finding none, tossed the book away I am not a big fan of so many characters, so many voices, and so much happening in a book But with this one I remained patient And lord I m I not grateful It seems that I have been richly rewarded.This is book is set in Toronto in the 30s And except for Patrick, the main protagonist, the other dominant characters are mostly immigrants, whose lives and toils are described with painstaking detail, but still subtly sensual In fact, Patrick ends up feeling like the outsider in a cast of men and women that are ready to make it by whatever means in a masculine new world that is neither merciful nor apologetic.Which brings us to the dominant theme History And the place of the seemingly insignificant Ondaatje makes us care for what part that these small people, those who build the cities with their ill remunerated labor, and lost their lives in the course, played in making this history It is a book with many pleasures, romantic and poetic in part, and greatly rewarding for anyone who wishes to read some thought provoking stuff Dig in, with patient and assurance that you ll be rewarded in the end. The best book I ve read in 5 years But everyone I recommend it to hates it The prose is poetry, and the genetic connection to Ondaatje s earlier prose poem works like Coming through Slaughter is obvious But the power of this book resides in his characterization you come to be absolutely devoted to the individuals and I choose that word deliberately that populate this novel Though sparingly described, they seem familiar than the characters so exhaustively cataloged in much pomo fiction Ondaatje s genius is in the scenes he puts before us, which are almost emblematic of the character s personalities and values I dare anyone to forget the beauty of the scene when Caravaggio escapes from prison.Simultaneously a careful character study and a novel of ideas Ondaatje s best, by far.
He was born to a Burgher family of Dutch Tamil Sinhalese Portuguese origin He moved to England with his mother in 1954 After relocating to Canada in 1962, Ondaatje became a Canadian citizen Ondaatje studied for a time at Bishops College School and Bishop s University in Lennoxville, Quebec, but moved to Toronto and received his BA from the University of Toronto and his MA from Queen s Universit
- 256 pages
- In the Skin of a Lion
- Michael Ondaatje
- 17 July 2018 Michael Ondaatje