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4.2 out of 5 stars18
4.2 out of 5 stars
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on 4 March 2005
I read 'The English Patient' some years ago and enjoyed it immensely, prompting me to buy this earlier work. Regrettably, I buy more books than I get around to reading (I can't be the only culprit...), but I am so, so pleased that I've finally got around to reading this wonderful book...
In the Skin of a Lion is set in Canada, moving between rural Ontario and Toronto, and primarily charts the life of Patrick Lewis from the turn of the twentieth century to the late 1930s. However, the novel is not as structurally straight-forward as this suggests, as some of the chapters focus heavily on two of the three other main male characters. Nonetheless, Ondaatje hints within the novel that there is a structure, and indeed there is order and interconnectedness between the stories of these three mens' lives.
Ondaatje employs strong, physical descriptive language to honour the labours, particularly of migrant groups such as Macedonians, that shaped modern Canada - logging; dynamiting; cattle-herding; bridge-building and dam construction: the realistic and evocative writing on this range of human endeavours must have required a lot of research.
The novel also includes three intriguing, strong-willed female characters: radio actress and love of Patrick's life (despite many formidable hurdles) Clara Dickens; her best friend, Alice Gull, and Alice's daughter, Hana. Beautifully-crafted, poetic language describes the relationships that evolve over the years, and both the stories and language are a genuine delight for the reader to savour.
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on 19 January 1999
This is the prequel to the rather more famous The English Patient, however despite the latter's success In the Skin of the Lion is the better book. It is based in Canada, when the country was still young and growing using as fuel the poor and migrants. This has to be close to one of the best I have ever read, indeed, I cannot say that I have enjoyed another more. The writing itself is exquisite, Ondaatje writes prose as if it were poetry (he is also an accomplished poet) - the beauty in the language itself is reason enough to enjoy it. But it is the book's overwhelming sense of humanity that makes this book what it is. This book is about people, their stories, their tragedies and their ability to love. It envelops you in its slightly dreamy, warm human haze while you read it and long after you've finished.
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on 28 June 2009
... but there is order here, very faint, very human." This should be the first sentence of every novel, the narrator reflects midway in Michael Ondaatje extraordinary novel. And he makes taking the time more than worthwhile. Actual short news items are creatively woven into a tapestry of life in and around Toronto during the early decades of the last century. Real or realistic characters, essential for the construction of the city at the time are at the centre of the story: primarily immigrant workers from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds. Ondaatje makes them the heroes of this powerful and captivating novel, with a few established Canadians added into the mix and set against the social and political context of the time. "It is a novel about the wearing and the removal of masks; the shedding of skin, the transformations and translations of identity." Ondaatje stated in an interview, hinting at the novel's title, taken from the ancient Sumerian Epic, Gilgamesh.

A nun falls off a bridge under construction, a millionaire theatre mogul disappears, neither person to be traced or washed up somewhere... "Official histories, news stories surround us daily, but the events of art reach us too late, travel languorously like messages in a bottle." Yet in his novel, the author spins a possible continuation of each news story, bringing the events to life, giving the characters an alternative reality, in which their lives are closely connected to other, imagined, characters.

Patrick Lewis is the central figure in the novel, the linking element of what initially may appear as disconnected stories. With his father he lives on a farm and learns his father's skill as a logging dynamiter. One night, he watches a group of loggers, Finns, dancing on the frozen river, burning cattails in hand. "...Skating the river at night, each of them moving like a wedge into the blackness magically revealing the grey bushes of the shore, HIS shore, HIS river." [emphasis in the text in italics] He is too uncertain of himself to join them despite being transfixed by the beauty and grace of it. "So at this stage in his life, his mind raced ahead of his body." As he grows up and moves around the different lowly jobs open to him, he is increasingly drawn to the communities his mates come from. As one of the few "locals" and English speaking characters, he realizes that the others are not the outsiders, rather he is. He has become the observer and a sideline to events and stories. "His own life was no longer a single story, but part of a mural, which was a falling together of accomplices. Patrick saw a wondrous night web - all of these fragments of a human order, something ungoverned by the family he was born into or the headlines of the day."

One of Patrick's many jobs is that of a "seeker" a private investigater of sorts, who is tasked with finding the whereabouts of Ambrose Small, the theatre mogul. What starts as a job grows into a quest and later obsession, less related to Small as time goes by as to Clara, the gorgeous and mysterious lover. Patrick's emotional maturity will be tested more than once.

Ondaatje is a poet at heart. He is well known for his lyrical strength in evoking emotions and describing intimate relationships and in this novel, these form an essential element in his protagonist's life. In addition, though, whether evoking the atmosphere of the loggers dance on the ice or the depicting the construction workers labouring on the bridge, the leather dyers at the abattoir, he finds a language that adds vivid imagery and poetry to the hardest human conditions. Few authors would have the power of words to bring beauty to the description of the leather dyers, covered in yellow, blue or green dyes, standing together like a living sculpture... Their dangerous work, like that of the bridge construction workers or the dynamiter and others is conveyed with understanding, empathy for the men while at the same time reflecting the growing anger against those in control: those who take "collateral" damage for granted and pass on to the next party and drink. The social tensions in the society of the day are one of the underlying threads of the novel, integrated subtly as an integral part of the immigrants' surroundings and realities. Similar to Divisadero, the various narrative strings are pulled together at the end, but it is helpful to re-read the beginning to close the ellipse completely. A remarkable novel of timeless power [Friederike Knabe]
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Michael Ondaatje (best known for The English Patient) writes a faultless novel looking at ordinary people in a most extraordinary way. The myriad of characters in this novel bring together many aspects of human nature and in doing so show one shared characteristic, survival. They all all survive in one way or another, whether it be because of the birth of a child or because they are caught whilst falling from a bridge the (ordinary?) humans in this book survive. It is a book about learning, about dreaming and ultimately about life. Ondaatje brings all these aspects of human nature together bound in exquisite language and genuine feeling. Is this the best book ever written? I believe so.
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on 24 April 2000
Upton Sinclair met Willian Saroyan at the corner of Bloor and Yonge and wrote this novel. A deep and intimate feeling of the smell, look and feel of being human in a human world of work and love and hopes and fears.
A great evocation of how love works physically, the accidents of how people meet and then the intimacy of their behaviour - one character comments that young people "act like wildlife" - spot on. The scenes of immigrant life and working and building and politics and city planning and prison build a mosaic of early 20th century Toronto from the stories of a handful of people. One feels the intensity of the cold of an ontario countryside winter. It rings true almost everywhere and the language is like syrup -flowing and golden and refracting. It's almost too nourishing.
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on 7 December 2011
This is the less famous but better relation to the English Patient, which achieved much of its status from being made into a well known film. This is Ondaatje's previous novel, a prequel of sorts, and is a beautifully written, evocative and cleverly structured slice of genius. At times it is like reading poetry and i would recommend this book to anyone who likes really beautifully written fiction with clever structure and great narrative story.
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on 18 August 2010
I chose this book for my book group after I read a newspaper review of an Ondaatje novel about civil engineering set in Canada. Might not sound promising, and things could have got worse when I recommended the English Patient to my 18 year old daughter for holiday reading. It sounded like Ondaatje was heading for the bad sex award when he described his likening of a man's bodily part to a seahorse....But don't switch off! In the Skin of a Lion is a wonderful book. He juggles the stories of a number of characters all set in and around Toronto in the early 20th century. Some may take issue with the poetics and the jumps from character to character but to me Ondaatje is constantly testing himself to the limit and it works. It is a wonderful account of the Canadian landscape, both rural and urban, of the early immigrant communities in North America and the race literally to build a new world at sometimes terrible cost. Read it!
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on 15 April 2014
This, only his second novel, is considered by many his masterpiece. This reader is impressed how so much action and drama were compressed into such a small book. MO did so because of a writing style called by many poetic, full of metaphors and symbolism. ‘Total darkness’ is a recurring image in different contexts, so is ‘horizon’. No doubt there are more such images.
This against a background of the immigrants shaping Toronto into a modern city in the 1920s and-30s. Or earlier, in the North, logging in harsh winter conditions. The novel revolves around Patrick Lewis, who falls in love with two actresses, first Sarah, later with her friend Alice. Later key characters are Hana and Caravaggio, who will re-appear in “The English Patient”. It highlights the construction of some of Toronto’s key public works, poor pay and working conditions everywhere and a nascent labour movement. These were harsh years indeed except for the unscrupulous and wealthy.
This is a grand read with echoes of Doctorow, Scott Fitzgerald, “Citizen Kane” and a tribute to Joseph Conrad, who is mentioned on a few occasions. To write this tale in blockbuster style would have required twice as many words and the loss of most of its magic. The characters are passionate but often talk little or not, and remain rather opaque. No talk about their past, nor a clear eye on the future; they live in the here and now. This reader has no antenna for poetry and has probably missed something or other on almost every page, while the dialogues baffled me almost completely.
Finally, what may be the novel’s biggest asset is that it challenges its readers to recreate in their own mind this work as a film. Its many song titles are now on YouTube for readers to add a soundtrack as well. Will want to read it again soon.
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on 14 July 2009
Having read Ondaatje's Running In The Family (and much enjoyed it) several years ago, this was his first novel I have consumed and, to be honest, found it difficult going in parts. Probably, that's what makes it 'literary'! As a regular visitor to Toronto, I found the description of the city decades ago to be really quite fascinating and the characterisation was good. I believe one, or more, of the characters appear in The English Patient and I keep my fingers crossed about liking that work.
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on 21 April 2012
Simply the best book I have ever read. Every time I convince a friend to read it I feel that I have made the world a better place by sharing the sublime, unpretentious, poetic beauty of this extraordinary book. The soft, tender and gently melancholic tone of the novel will stay with you long after the beautiful images have faded.
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