Sunday, January 31, 2010

In the Skin of a Lion - Michael Ondaatje

During my first two years of college, I took a lot of classes in 18th and 19th century literature. The books were long, but my professors were wonderful, and it was a great foundation for me to learn about the concept of the novel and storytelling in general. And then, I took Professor Solomon's Modernist Fiction class and I felt like an entire new world opened up to me. I wasn't entirely sure that I liked this new world, but with steam of consciousness, literary cubism, and intertextuality, it was definitely something new and exciting to explore. But, the truth is those novels were hard work - I never quite knew what Faulkner was getting at, or I wasn't sure which of Woolf's characters were actually speaking. I didn't know if we were in the past, the present, or the future - it was all quite disorienting. Since college, I have mostly stayed away from this genre of writing - I prefer a good plot. I like linear storytelling. I like happy endings. But, when a co-worker who sounded like he knew what he was talking about told me that In the Skin of a Lion was his favorite book of all time, I thought I'd take a look. The book is ostensibly about the lives of immigrant laborers who helped build up Toronto in the early 1900s, with specific focus on the character of Patrick Lewis. Patrick becomes a seeker, determined to track down a missing rich man, and in the course of his investigation falls in love with two different women. In the Skin of a Lion is the story of outsiders, wearing different faces, accents, and personas in an attempt to assimilate and belong. Ondaatje's descriptions of the laborers and their dangerous work building bridges and pouring tar reminded me of Zola's description of the mine workers in Germinal. But, his piecemeal dialogue and his shifting from character to event to cloudy memory is in every way post-modern. I appreciated this book for Ondaatje's language and imagery. I particularly enjoyed a passage in which a young Patrick Lewis watches the immigrant laborers as they ice skate on a pond near his home. He longs to join and understand them. It's one of those passages that makes you feel like you're right there with the character. But, then Ondaatje switches to his next scene, and you're left wondering what just happened. I felt like I was watching television with my husband, a notorious channel-changer - the second I became interested in a character or wondered what would happen next, the scene switched on me. In the Skin of a Lion is definitely not for the reader who wants a clear linear story - but for those who are bored by such conventions, and who love working a little more while they unravel a book, this is certainly worth checking out.

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