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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Poetic , delicate, but humourless..
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,...
Published on 17 Jun. 2000

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Harrowing, tender but not everything I'd hoped for
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...
Published on 15 Jan. 2002


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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
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This review is from: Anil's Ghost (Hardcover)
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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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Harrowing, tender but not everything I'd hoped for, 15 Jan. 2002
By A Customer
This review is from: Anil's Ghost (Paperback)
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
This review is from: Anil's Ghost (Paperback)
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
3.0 out of 5 stars Forensic Study of Sri Lanka's Bitter Conflict in the 1980's and 90's., 25 Nov. 2010
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This review is from: Anil's Ghost (Paperback)
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 "Caroline McElwee" (UK) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
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This review is from: Anil's Ghost (Hardcover)
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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4.0 out of 5 stars Human rights issues in a country where the true enemy is unknown, 17 Dec. 2009
By 
Trevor Coote "Trevor Coote" (Tahiti, French Polynesia) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Anil's Ghost (Paperback)
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Yes and no, 13 Feb. 2009
This review is from: Anil's Ghost (Paperback)
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Anil's Ghost, 29 Mar. 2011
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This review is from: Anil's Ghost (Vintage International) (Paperback)
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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5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting read, 4 Feb. 2013
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This review is from: Anil's Ghost (Kindle Edition)
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 own country and revisits the past and comes to terms with how her country has been hiding its past. strong characterisation of the central characters. Very atmospheric.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mesmerising, 30 May 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: Anil's Ghost (Hardcover)
This brilliant, stimulating novel reminded me a great deal of 'The Color Purple', especially regarding the theme of subjectivity. Some of the critics of Walker's book said that for Celie to desire to become her own person, to express her subjectivity was wrong, since it was the overbearing subjectivity of the White European male which had created the tradition of slavery that still coloured Celie's life decades after its abolition
Ondaatje's landscape is similar. Okay, so Ondaatje's intention is to supply fictional biography (as opposed to Celie's fictional autobiography), but the same issue of subjectivity resounds. 'Anil's Ghost' is at heart a novel about language. A novel about meaning. Ondaatje promotes the very sound notion that language is all around us: there is the language of touch (the personal way Ananda touches Anil in the novel), the language of noise (the ancient culture centred around music, the drumming that awaits identification of the head that Ananda fabricates), the language of sight (Anil sees Palipana at one point as an 'idea'). The author reminds us of that primeval language, of a time before written symbols, and recites a humorous, but significant tale of what a certain order of monks used to do to graven images. It's probably no accident that Anil's favourite rock star is Prince, or 'The Artist Formerly Known As...'. I never had much sympathy for Prince before I read Ondaatje's novel and put down his decision to change his name to a symbol as typical showbiz eccentricity. But now I feel disappointed that the symbol has reverted to 'Prince', a gesture that resounds with the coincidence of this novel.
Anil, the female forensic brought in by the UN to examine alleged human rights' abuses in Sri Lanka, is the one character that seems determined to project her subjectivity in this way. She demands to define herself, to name herself. As a young woman growing up in Sri Lanka, she won a swimming contest. As she returns to her homeland, she finds that the fame of her sporting exploits has reached everyone she works with, even although it was one event decades before. Anil brushes such labels aside, "I'm not a swimmer" she declares. Even although, in a previous life, her 'fame' as a swimmer had helped to break her shyness at parties. Now that she has defined herself as 'forensic scientist', she is no longer a swimmer; no longer needs to be a swimmer. But even labelled by her occupation, she seems to be guided by simplicity, and her instinct is to create order out of chaos, to find her truth.
Anil's antagonist in the swimming debate is Sarath, an archaeologist employed by the government, who much prefers complexity and silence. For him, the 'truth' is a dangerous concept, which should never be discussed when there are recording devices around. Anil is suspicious of him, for he works for, and has relatives in, the government, which seems to be very much involved in the killings. Doubt resounds within Anil because Sarath seems to be a decent man, and pupil of the great Palipana. Here Ondaatje seems to be dealing with the ancient binary opposition of the West as rational and the East as irrational, with Anil embodying the values of the West, and Sarath embodying those of the East. Yet there's also a binary opposition, which has the West as powerful male and the East as cowering female. Ondaatje seems to have swapped the genders here, since Anil is most assuredly female (she claims she longs for the privacy of the West, but delights bathing in open air showers).
It is tempting to think that Ondaatje's treading the ground of neutrality here as Sarath seems to (there's no mention of 'Tamil' along with 'Tiger'), but both appear rather to opt for complexity over simplicity (I was surprised to learn that there were two factions fighting the government in Sri Lanka). 'Truth is mere opinion' is the belief uttered here, with the suggestion that there's always a large dosing of fiction mixed with any fact. Palipana's reputation as an archaeologist is damaged when he insists on seeing a truth, which lies beyond the 'facts' (just as his physical sight deteriorates). Ondaatje doesn't give us a tedious list of 'rights' and 'wrongs' in the Sri Lankan context, but merely conveys that everyone has lost someone, and carry with them a ghost. Lots of people have disappeared without explanation, without context in the conflict - the survivors too scared to ask for clarity in case they're next (and without context, you cannot create meaning, as Anil's friend Leaf discovers). Instead, they invent the histories of the lost ones, who are signified by any remaining talisman, such as a sarong.
Anil sees that she and Sarath can do something, for they have evidence in the form of the body of one of the 'disappeared', a corpse that they have called 'Sailor' (from the rhyme 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor'). But such is the dominance of Western popular novels on Sri Lankan bookshelves, with each Agatha Christie a reminder of colonialism, that one can't help but think of Sailor as 'Spy': that Death as well as the stars looks over the characters in this novel.
Here, Ondaatje has produced a startling book, which is extremely topical (note the impotent UN). There is also a lot of humour (Anil's letter to John Boorman concerning Lee Marvin's gunshot wound in the opening of 'Point Blank'). But mostly this is a treatise on subjectivity: a force used for ill by all those murdering in their bid to create subjects (where 'subjects' = 'objects', the silent mass to be multiplied by fear), and as a force used for good. After all, it is Ananda, the artist, who breathes life into objects by painting their eyes.
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