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Anil's Ghost [Paperback]

Michael Ondaatje
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)

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Book Description

4 May 2001
Anil Tissera, a forensic anthropologist, has returned to Sri Lanka, a land steeped in culture and tradition, to investigate organized campaigns of murder engulfing the island. This is a story of love, family, and identity, set in a country torn apart and ravaged by civil war.

Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; New edition edition (4 May 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330480774
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330480772
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 506,679 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Anil's Ghost is Michael Ondaatje's eagerly awaited follow-up to his classic Booker prize-winning novel The English Patient. Drawing on Ondaatje's own Sri Lankan heritage, wonderfully explored in his travel narrative Running in the Family, Anil's Ghost is located in contemporary Sri Lanka, in the midst of interminable internecine civil war between government forces, separatist Tamils and antigovernment insurgents.

The novel's action revolves around Anil Tissera, a young forensic anthropologist, born in Sri Lanka but educated in Europe and America, who "had courted foreignness", and "was at ease whether on the Bakerloo line or on the highways around Santa Fe". Anil returns to the country of her birth after 15 years on a United Nations sponsored investigation into the escalating number of politically motivated murders engulfing the island. As Anil begins to realise the scale of the murder and horror which her investigations reveal, it becomes clear that "the darkest Greek tragedies were innocent compared with what was happening here". She reluctantly teams up with Sarath Diyasena, "the archaeologist selected by the government" to investigate a particularly sensitive murder; skeletons discovered buried in the Bandarawela caves, one of the most archaeologically sensitive sites in the entire country. One skeleton in particular fascinates both Anil and Sarath. Simply known as "Sailor", the quest for the skeleton's identity sucks both Anil and Sarath into the terrifying heart of darkness which makes up contemporary Sri Lankan politics. Ondaatje reflects upon the ancient history of Sri Lanka through the fragments of history and identity that Anil and Sarath uphold in the face of the murder and chaos which surrounds them.

Although Anil's Ghost is a poetic and beautifully written book, it is also a tough, uncompromising and brave novel about a terrifying conflict that the world has chosen to ignore. --Jerry Brotton --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


When forensic anthropologist Anil Tissera returns to Sri Lanka she finds the country ravaged by civil war. She has been sent there to investigate the organised murder campaigns that have engulfed the island and what follows is a story of love, family and identity and a quest to unlock the hidden past. Superb reviews for this new novel by the author of the Booker Prize winning The English Patient.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Poetic , delicate, but humourless.. 17 Jun 2000
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The most disturbing aspect of Ondaatje's novel is that were it not for his reputation with his previous novels, Anil's Ghost would have gone the same way as so many other novels about Sri Lanka's dark recent past and present. The story is familiar to many who lived through the 'troubles' of the early 1990s, in fact I was often overcome with a serious sense of deja-vu, with whole passages seeming to have been repeated from conversations that many Sri Lankan's hold with their own families.
Where Ondaatje excells is in describing the terminally complex politics of the island in a way that is at least accessible to the layman. In this respect there can be little doubt that this is one of the most readable novels of the period, but often seems to be displaced from the reality of the daily Sri Lankan experience. Quite simply, were it not for the names, it could be anywhere.
The device of Anil's name itself is a nice one, with the character choosing the name for herself, somewhat like Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, formally Serendipity, nee Lanka, and sometimes Shri Lanka. It is an aspect of the novel which could have been developed far more. But this is one of the many problems with the novel. The only way to tell such a story is by stripping it down to the bare bones. Yes, it is poetic and subtle, and manages to avoid the mire of Sri Lankan politics, but in doing so it also looses its identity as a novel about Sri Lanka.
The one real difficulty that I have with the novel is that, while it illustrates the horrors of the island, it does so at the expense of the reality. Sri Lanka has a sense of humour, but that is never conveyed in the text and makes it seem that we all live in terminal fear. Indeed, Anil defines her autopsies by the 'fear gland'.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
I had read the hype and had the book praised beyond all others by the person who bought if for me. I have visited Sri Lanka and know a woman who escaped to the UK as a political refugee, living with the fact that her cousin was one of the many Tamil suicide bombers. So I held this book in high anticipation. And although it is tightly written I did not see the story.
I lived the scenes and the matter of fact way that so much human devastation was a cold fact of life. I enjoyed the relationships as they developed and the turmoil of Anil's journey through her work, but I missed the links. Perhaps I am too simplistic in my expectations for a novel, but I needed more continuity in the story and a way to draw it all together. Ondaatje is clearly a professional writer and deserves the awards he has receieved. It's just that in Anil's Ghost I thought I would be captivated and absorbed and the truth is I was not.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Curiously uninvolving 17 April 2002
By A Customer
There are many good things in this novel but ulimately it doesn't add up to the sum of its parts.

The first half is particularly good setting the scene in Sri Lanka in a state of civil war and the descriptions of the lives of the medical staff are particularly involving and moving. He also does a good job of setting all this in the historical background.

However, about 2/3rds of the way through Ondaatjie seems to loose interest in his nominal 'plot' -the search for the identity of a skeleton found by the main protagonists. We then get a long digression into the life of what had previously been a minor character. When we finally get back to the plot it ends in such a perfuctory way that I was left with a feeling of is that it?

Some wonderful writing, but a lack of coherent structure or plot, plus characters who remain somewhat enigmatic means that the whole thing is much less involving and moving than you might expect.

Maybye the whole thing works much better if you know something about Sri Lanka?
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Although this is a work of fiction, its detailed analysis of Sri Lanka's conflict read more like a documentary. Ondaatje's understanding of forensic anthroplogy and for the gruelling work the medical staff dealing with numerous bomb and minefield victims was impressive. For the most part the reader is given a politically neutral observation of the troubles. The character of Anil did not work for me and the principal reason I did not enjoy the novel. Anil's character was meticulously drawn and there were interesting aspects to her background: how she became to be called Anil: a woman who had left Sri Lanka aged 18, studied medicine in England and North Amrica, and worked in troubled spots in Africa and Guatamala, and a relationship with a married man called Cussil but sadly Ondaatje's Anil is cold and dispassionate and her role in the novel virtually peters out by the end. Ondaatje may have been using this technique deliberately after all the book is called Anil's Ghost but I wondered why the novel seems to focus on Gamini towards the end whose tenuous connection to Anil through Sarath seemed flimsy other than to bring the brutally ugly experiences for a Doctor in Sri Lanka at the time. All in all Ondaatje evokes heart rending detail but as a novel I was less interested.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Ghost's the thing 16 May 2000
By Ms. C. J. Mcelwee VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Although this novel is set in Sri Lanka there is little to describe it. The main landscape is of a society undergoing the pressures of long term war and terror. The submissions and rebellions of everyday life, the not knowing who is with you and who against, and the devisiveness of that situation. It is a novel of ghosts both alive and dead.
This is not "The English Patient", but why should anyone wish to read the same novel in different guise. What one should ask of any writer is that they give us something fresh each time. Ondaatje does this. What is Ondaatjean is the texture of the prose, his facination with the details of processes - in 'The English Patient' it is bomb disposal, here it is in the artists processes for painting the eyes of the buddha (perhaps a metaphor for the situation in Sri Lanka at the present and how people have to deal with it, for if the statue of the buddha has no eyes painted or carved in, then he has not taken up residence and cannot see). It is in the forensic archeology, in the bones.
This is a quiet novel about unquiet times and worth your attention.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 1 month ago by Mrs D M Grimley
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing
Great subject matter (civil war in Sri Lanka ), but this was not a story,but a series of fictitious anecdotes. No character development, no exploration of motivation etc
Published 13 months ago by Caroline
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting read
Set in Sri Lanka, a story about loss, trust, the past and letting go. Tells the story of the atrocities of the civil war in Sri Lanka while the central character comes back to her... Read more
Published 19 months ago by Mrs Susan M Heller
4.0 out of 5 stars Anil's Ghost
A delicate and awfully sad piece. Written with elegance but at the same time intense emotivity. I would have expected nothing less from such an author. Read more
Published on 29 Mar 2011 by Bellini45
4.0 out of 5 stars Human rights issues in a country where the true enemy is unknown
It must be a painful experience for a writer to witness the meltdown of his or her country of origin from the comfort of exile. Read more
Published on 17 Dec 2009 by Trevor Coote
3.0 out of 5 stars Yes and no
I'm still not quite sure what I made of this. It's certainly a very dense novel set against a fascinating and gruesome period. Read more
Published on 13 Feb 2009 by daisyrock
5.0 out of 5 stars Past never leaves the present.
An amazing book, thought-provoking, emotional and an insight into the problems in Sri Lanka.

A forensic scientist returns to her native country after a long time as part... Read more
Published on 11 Nov 2008 by soffitta1
5.0 out of 5 stars A most beautiful book
I have read Anil's Ghost twice and am looking forward to reading it again, as it is one of my favourite books of all time. Read more
Published on 2 Jan 2007 by Woodpecker
5.0 out of 5 stars An amazing book
This book is so powerful and yet so subtle in its power. The power , the passion and the sights and smells this book evokes are clear and sharp and strong . Read more
Published on 2 May 2004 by A.Customer
2.0 out of 5 stars a frustrating disappointment
After watching the involving and original English Patient several years ago, I promised myself I would pick up one of Michael Ondaatje's novels and give them the service of reading... Read more
Published on 17 Dec 2002 by "darrendowns3"
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