2013 Challenges, Books

Book 169: In the Skin of a Lion – Michael Ondaatje

Ondaatje, Michael - In the Skin of a LionNow, having read two books by Michael Ondaatje, one thing is certain: his writing is incredibly smooth and beautiful, especially when it comes to the description of scenes and settings. The best comparison I can think of is a deep voice talking soothingly (like James Earl Jones or Donald Sutherland. And in all honesty, I’m pretty sure I read Ondaatje’s books with a Sutherland voice in my head. In the Skin of a Lion is my third Mount TBR book, but not an officially listed book, but one I expected to read.

As I read the story, I kept forgetting that the novel is told as a retelling of the story. It starts out with, this is when (and how) this story is told and I just forgot about it. And forgetting about this really affected my ability to enjoy the story. I kept thinking this is pretty disjointed and wondering who the narrator was talking to. Rereading the ‘forward’ helped put it back into perspective, but I should’ve paid more attention from the start.

Of all the Ondaatje novels I could have chosen, I chose this one because I assumed it was a prequel to The English Patient and it says in the back blurb, ‘the novel which introduced us to characters in The English Patient and although this is true, it’s a bit of a stretch. The two characters, Hana and Caravaggio, do make appearances in this novel, but it’s not so much as a prequel as a related novel in a similar world even though you do find out what happens to the narrator. I don’t know I thought there would be more explicit connection between the two novels, as a direct continuation rather than another time and place with the same characters.

What I most enjoy about Ondaatje’s writing is his lack of dialogue. Dialogue really does make or break a story and you have to be completely committed to either using it, and using it well, or using it sparingly. I’ve always imagined that Ondaatje would make a great Scandinavian film director (and maybe this is true about a lot of Canadians), but he has a great sense of space and openness and describes scenes and settings so well without the need of much dialogue. The dialogue that is there is concise and specific.

Recommendation: I would read The English Patient over this book, but there were definitely interesting dynamics in this novel that make it worth reading. It was fascinating to ‘learn’ more about the upheaval in Canada with unions and workers and how similar, and different, it was to the US. This is an interesting look into the social lives of immigrants and I think that’s something Ondaatje has always offered up as his own autobiographical input to his novels and I appreciate it.

Opening Line: “This is a story a young girl gathers in a car during the early hours of the morning.”

Closing Line: “Lights, he said.” (Whited out.)

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