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3.7 out of 5 stars31
3.7 out of 5 stars
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on 17 June 2000
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'. This does undermine the sense of humanity that is so strongly needed in a novel of this sort. Ultimately Anil's Ghost had to be written by a writer of Ondaatje's stature, simply to make people listen. It is a book that everone who read the affected English Patient, and all those navel gazing literary critics should read with a passion. But it must, however, be remembered that there are many other Sri Lankan writers who are equally eloquent, and far too many who never find a voice in Sri Lanka's continuing 'horror'.
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on 15 January 2002
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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on 17 April 2002
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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on 25 November 2010
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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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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on 17 December 2009
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. For Canadian author Michael Ondaatje that country is Sri Lanka. The paradise island of tea and cricket has over the last twenty years descended into a morass of barbarity where a hapless population is terrorised by insurgents, secessionists, terrorists and government death squads. Ondaatje returns to his country of birth in the form of Anil, a forensic anthropologist assigned by a human rights organisation to investigate a series of massacres that appear to be part of an organised campaign. Working with Sarath, a government-employed archaeologist assigned to aid her investigation, she hopes that by taking the skeleton of one murder victim as a sample and uncovering the details of his death they will shed light on the culprits behind the murder campaign. But this is a risky business in a country from where she has been absent for so long that she no longer speaks the language fluently, and where the true enemy is unknown.
Anil's Ghost is a beautifully written, meticulously researched, exposition on both a country locked in a cycle of violence, some part of which has arisen as a by-product of a deep history and entrenched local customs and superstitions, and the difficulties faced, and assumptions made, by the Human Rights industry. It is, however, composed in short sections which tend to hinder the flow of the narrative and remove a certain depth from the central characters, despite their obvious sympathy. Quality literary fiction.
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It took me until well over a third of the book to start enjoying reading it. Before I was struggling, because like Anil who couldn't get a handle on Sarath, I couldn't get a handle on any of the characters. Anil in particular remained a shadowy, undefined character to me, with a girlfriend she had slept entwined with, a male ex lover she had stabbed with a knife, and her very odd, aggressive behaviour. However on page 119 when we come to Gamini and start understanding about the effect on the war on local, ordinary people, the novel started to make more sense. We discover the Sri Lankan war from the eyes of the Sri Lankans themselves, rather than from a Western perspective. We discover that prosthetic legs are cheaper iin Asia because they don't require shoes.
I often found the book confusing and much remained unanswered. Was Sarath married or not - some saw him with a wife. I thought the end could have been clearer, the fate of the main characters. It's definitely not as good as "The English Patient" but is worth reading and I'm looking forward to going to Sri Lanka. I was fascinated to read about the Sri Lankan customs and way of life - people born under a certain star being unsuitable as marriage partners for example. Ultimately in spite of countless horrific atrocities over years the people remain steadfast and serene, and that is what Ananda and his reconstructed Buddha statue show at the end of book.
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on 13 February 2009
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. I liked the multiple viewpoints and stories, but ultimately found it a little disappointing in terms of 'closure' - so many stories are left unfinished. Perhaps the very point is that during times of war, ends are never tied up, people disappear, stories fade away without reaching conclusion. It's a fair artistic point, but a little unfulfilling in a novel. Nonetheless, a worthy read.
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on 29 March 2011
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. Ondatje casts his troubled characters against the shadow of a terrible and extremely complicated civil war very successfully, so much so that one is brought to hard consideration of mankind's tendency to unspeakable cruelty. I strongly recommend this book to a more involved and sensitive readership.
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on 3 March 2016
In some ways this felt slight (plotwise), disjointed and inconsequential (nothing much really happens in the end), but it's full of evocative images and I was fascinated by the descriptions of the life of a doctor patching up victims of torture and civil war. In fact I'd have been happier if the whole book were about Gamini rather than Anil, who I found less compelling
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