A Haunting Read

Book Review of “Anil’s Ghost” by Michael Ondaatje.

82c04-200px-anilsghostAnil Tissera is a forensic archaeologist who was born in Sri Lanka (where author Michael Ondaatje also hails from). After having been an ex-patriot for nearly 15 years, a human rights commission asks her to investigate a gravesite in her home country. What she finds there, and the colleagues she works with, gets her tangled into a web of conspiracy and intrigue over the bones of a person she calls “Sailor” who she believes was a victim of the civil unrest during the 1980’s and 1990’s in that country.

As this was the much-awaited first novel since “The English Patient,” there was quite a bit for Ondaatje to live up to here. While this is very different from that book, I don’t think he let us down at all. What impresses the reader most about Ondaatje is ability to use language so artfully. His seemingly simple style is deceptively poetic, and draws us into Anil’s life and experiences with glimpses from her past. These are what Ondaatje uses to build the character into one so well rounded that we feel we could almost pick her out in a crowd. Ondaatje uses brief descriptions of action, interspersed with flashbacks and thought processes to tell the story for him. While some might find this style slightly disjointed and choppy, Ondaatje makes it flow like a river, and as smooth as silk. This makes this novel so very readable, you may want to read it all again as soon as you’ve finished.

For those familiar with Ondaatje, the thing that will stand out most is how this novel is constructed compared to his previous work. Whereas Ondaatje used more elements of poetry in his earlier works, including having chapters made up of only a line or two, here he uses a more fleshed out literary style. This in no way lessens the beauty of the language he uses, and further confirms him as a master storyteller – no matter how he puts forth the action for his readers.

What helps this along is how we are caught up by tiny bits of information giving the reader extensive insight into the characters. For instance, early in the story we find that Anil isn’t this woman’s original name, but one she “took” from her brother. Apparently, the name Anil isn’t a Sri Lankan name for a boy at all. Even so, the sound of the name appealed to her deeply. Because she was so passionate and adamant about this, when she decided she wanted to be Anil, the world accepted this without much of a bother. From this, we immediately understand what it is that makes Anil such a special person. As the story unfolds, her actions feel very characteristic for someone who would do such a thing.

By the way, the ghost in the title does not refer to a dead Anil. Indeed, the word ‘ghost’ never appears in the book. This begs the question: what ghost that is haunting Anil? That question has many answers. One answer is this ghost is the “Sailor” – the victim for whom she’s trying to find some modicum of justice. Another idea is that the ghost is her own past; the Anil she was when she was when she lived in Sri Lanka, and the person feels has returned with this visit. It could also be the mysterious lover that she left behind or the mysteries underneath the surface of the local man she must work with. Any of these, and maybe all, may be correct. In truth, it really is the reader’s decision.

In addition, Ondaatje is able to totally identify with this fascinating female character and bring her to life. It is very rare indeed that a male author can do such a good job with a female protagonist. What’s more, this story is almost totally Anil’s, and she deserves to be the focus of the author’s efforts. Some might say this is so overly true that the other characters suffer because of it, but I didn’t find this to detract from the story.

“Anil’s Ghost” isn’t a ‘feel-good’ uplifting story, but it will captivate you, as it transports you to a time and place that you’ve probably never visited, or read about before. Anil herself is a complex character; she evokes far more than what Ondaatje reveals about her. The plot is one that is both fascinating, and out of the ordinary. However, what really makes this a beautiful read is the spellbinding language that only Ondaatje can give us. For all this, I have to highly recommend “Anil’s Ghost” and give it a full five stars out of five.

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anil-s-ghost-1“Anil’s Ghost” by Michael Ondaatje is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo (Walmart) Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), eBooks.com, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. (This is a version of the review that originally appeared under my username TheChocolateLady on the {now defunct} sites Dooyoo and Yahoo! Contributor Network.)

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