Book Review for “In the Skin of a Lion” by Michael Ondaatje.
This book was published in 1987 and frankly, I’m shocked that I hadn’t read this before now. It should have caught my eye sooner, since it is actually historical fiction. I mean, talk about my genre, right? Plus – HELLO! Ondaatje! Well, I have no excuses, but thankfully, I’ve now rectified this embarrassing oversight.
From the back of my edition of this book, the New York Times calls this “a love story and an irresistible mystery set in the turbulent, muscular new world of Toronto in the 20s and 30s.” On the whole, while I can agree with the NYT summary, I think it is a bit more than that. Maybe a better way to summarize this book is with the opening lines that appear in this book, which read as follows:
This is a story a young girl gathers in a car during the early hours of the morning. She listens and asks questions as the vehicle travels through darkness. Outside, the countryside is unbetrayed. The man who is driving could say, “In that field is a castle,” and it would be possible for her to believe him.
She listens to the man as he picks up and brings together various corners of the story, attempting to carry it all in his arms. And he is tired, sometimes as elliptical as his concentration on the road, at times overexcited – “Do you see?” He turns to her in the faint light of the speedometer.
To me this novel is a mosaic of vignettes that turns this city into a portrait, where the wide hued characters make up the various pieces. Okay, I understand if that sounds confusing, but if you’ve read Ondaatje’s work, especially the earlier ones, I think you’ll understand what I’m getting at here. What I mean is that the books Ondaatje published before this, Coming Through Slaughter (1976) and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) are both hybrids of poetry and prose. In fact, the latter is often not considered fiction at all, but a collection of poetry, although I personally disagree. In this novel, Ondaatje changed his format to be much closer to conventional prose, with fewer poetic interludes. Interestingly enough, when Ondaatje went back to that hybrid format, in his 1992 novel “The English Patient” he ended up winning the Booker Prize, and having the novel adapted into movie (which was, to my mind, an absolutely, horrible, disgusting, perversion of an adaptation. I don’t care that it won an Oscar for Best Picture, it was still terrible). I’m so in awe of that book that I still can’t bring myself to write a review.
Beyond a doubt, the first thing I can say about this book is that Ondaatje’s writing here is undeniably luscious, and utterly evocative. Mind you, this book doesn’t feel as poetic as either of the earlier books mentioned above, and is actually also less poetic than The English Patient. What I mean by that is, where those three books have chapters that could be as short as a couple lines (some of which might not even be full sentences), here the chapters are much more cohesive and consistent in both their length and content, giving this book more of a conventional novel-like feel. However, although the format is more conformist, it is never sacrificed for even an iota of richness in the writing.
The only drawback here is that there were a few occasions where I felt that the dreamlike quality of writing did make some of the action described a touch confusing. More precisely, there were a couple of times I felt that the characters got a bit lost in the lyrics of the writing. This push-pull of prose vs. poetry and the tangible vs. the atmospheric, is something that I can now see Ondaatje overcame with overwhelming aplomb when he wrote his next novel. So, while the story that Ondaatje is telling here might get a bit lost in the rich narrative from time to time, the beauty of this book is still at its center, and that alone should be enough to make this novel appreciated.
I think the thing about this book that surprised me the most is that one usually thinks of Canada in general as being such a nice place, with such polite, good-natured, and honest people. Ondaatje, however, seems to portray the city of Toronto as something much more visceral, harsh and yes, even corrupt at times. Of course, this makes sense, since Ondaatje is describing an era of that city when it was still being built, still trying to tame nature, and trying to become someplace civilized and modern. These conditions almost beg for passion and facing the harsh realities of both the land and the people working to tame it for future generations.
The point here is that I’m once again in total awe of Ondaatje. Mind you, I don’t think it reached the heights of The English Patient for me, but it is still the type of book I can wholeheartedly recommend, particularly to people who can appreciate a complex story told exquisitely and with redolent language. Again, I cannot give it less than a full five stars out of five (only because the amount I would take off for some of the slightly confusing bits would only be about an eighth of a star).
“In the Skin of a Lion” by Michael Ondaatje is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks and audiobooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from an IndieBound store near you.
You can read my other reviews of Ondaatje’s works here: