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"Trust me, this will take time...,
This review is from: In the Skin of a Lion (Picador Books) (Paperback)
... 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]
Location: Ottawa, Ontario Canada
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