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3.7 out of 5 stars
3.7 out of 5 stars
Anil's Ghost
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on 29 June 2017
This has the makings of a good story, as Ondaatje evokes Sri Lanka's bloody recent past and its "scarring psychosis", while celebrating the nation's enduring cultural treasures. Here, a skeleton comes to represent a record of official atrocity, and its journey stands for the attempt to unearth truth, quite literally, from official attempts to bury it. Later on, the eyes of a statue look to a horizon of hope beyond the immediate destruction.

Meanwhile, universal ideas are inferred beyond this theatre of conflict, such as: "the main purpose of war had become war". Or "Sometimes law is on the side of power, not truth."

But I found the frequent leaps back and forward in time to be overdone and off-putting. So too are the essays inserted into the mouths of Ondaatje's characters, by way of conversation, in a way that could not be natural speech. Also, at times, he fails to identify his speakers, meaning I had to re-read some of the conversations to figure out who was talking.
Worth a read, perhaps, but there's room for improvement.
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on 24 April 2017
Anil arrives alone on a Human Rights mission to uncover evidence of atrocity; she is a fragile yet strong character, very similar to the Hana of earlier novels by Ondaatje and as interpreted by Juliette Binoche in the film The English Patient, but her family background lies in Sri Lanka rather than Canada. In the end, redemption from her fraught visit eludes her although she is instrumental in bringing it for others. If you are not familiar already with the dark past of civil war in that beautiful island then you will be both shocked and amazed in equal measure. We also learn much about her own complicated backstory. Nobody wants the truth, she finds. Hard to put down once started.
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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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VINE VOICEon 16 May 2000
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 29 April 2017
Beautiful writing, Ondaatje style.
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on 15 May 2017
I've already read The English Patient, so wasn't surprised when I dived into Ondaatje's world again, which feels very dreamy and evocative. It was a pleasure to read, but at times, a little frustrating... I sometimes had to go back and remind myself which character we were focusing on!

The story is centred round Anil, a champion swimmer turned forensic expert, who has returned to Sri Lanka to investigate a mysterious skeleton, buried in an ancient site. It ties in with the bigger picture of the war in Sri Lanka, which I found fascinating, as it's not something I knew anything about before.

Throughout the story, we don't just get to know Anil, but also the minor characters that enter her world, those damaged by the effects of the war around them. I loved this aspect of it, it added a lot of depth.

Ondaatjes language is spectacular at times, with gorgeously poetic phrases that make the book that much more beautiful. However, I'd personally say that plot is something of an issue, as it drifts, rather than drives you through. Just to emphasise though, if you're happy to sit back and simply let his stunning use of language wash over you, this isn't a problem!

Overall, a really enjoyable read, and I LIKE the fact the author has his own unique voice.
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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 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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Altogether, the group found the story bitty and the central figure too vague. The italicised sections before each chapter didn’t always relate to the reader unless they knew the recent history of Sri Lanka. There were too many characters to concentrate on, it really got going in the middle and then it tailed off. We never really got to know the significance of Sailor, and Anil’s relationship with Leaf offered a moment of lightness in a generally grim context. We wanted to know more about Ananda too – what led to his alcoholism. It seemed to be going somewhere but then it didn’t. We did get to see that Leaf had got the early onset of dementia. It left a lot open to your own interpretation. There were good cultural points, bits of information, but it just didn’t flow. No real narrative. It was disappointing. Anil’s character/personality didn’t have any substance to it. We thought Gamini was a stronger character. We were not really getting to know the character of Anil well. She was always quite ghostly – which probably reflects with Sailor. Fascinating parts about Sri Lanka – the matter of fact way he wrote about it. However, the story moved along quite well when they got to the hospitals. Anil was quite an insipid character – couldn’t engage with her at all. this book is difficult to read out loud as it relies on different typography to distinguish time periods, etc. Also much, like lists, is what you’d skim over if reading it alone, not read word for word. And people’s interpretations are different from what you might interpret. I thought the ending was suitable, not a melodramatic add-on. We liked the bit where Anil put her headphones on Ananda when he was three sheets to the wind and Tom Waits’s ‘Hi Ho’ from the Stay Awake album (various artistes covering songs from Disney cartoons) was on! That and the sequence with her and Leaf discussing the film where John Wayne portrayed Cherry Valance. Overall, the group gave it a 6 out of 10.
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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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