Saturday, January 4, 2014

Review: In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Ondaatje

In the Skin of a Lion is a novel that only a narrow audience - those who value poetic prose above all else - will enjoy. It's a novel with very little structure, loose and random plot threads, questionable motivation, and a lack of compelling character development. Time passes quickly and then slowly. The story follows a character randomly only to drop him. There's a feeling that Michael Ondaatje wrote this with great purpose, dabbling a little bit in logging, in dynamite, in romance, in bridge building, in falling nuns, in communism, in terrorism, and a little bit of everything else, but by the end I couldn't help but feel a sense of purposelessness. And maybe that is part of Ondaatje's goal, to show a character attempting to make meaning where none can be found. Or maybe I just don't get it. That's possible; the story didn't intrigue me enough to make that attempt.

The story begins from the perspective of Patrick Lewis as a boy in Canada. He lives with his father, who finds work in livestock and then in logging, where he specializes in dynamite. Some of these early scenes are intriguing in the way they capture the life of a poor family working in extreme cold condition. Ondaatje's eye for detail provide great insight into a cultural world that very few belong to. We feel how difficult life must be, day to day, as loggers are under constant danger of being swept underneath logs floating in the river and drowning. Patrick's father in particular faces danger every time he must clear a log jam with dynamite. There's also the cold. Michigan gets cold, but I doubt it gets as cold as in Patrick's Canada.

Then the novel switches to a bridge builder named Nicholas Temelcoff, a fellow who seems at peace with life, having an innate ability to climb and swing beneath the bridge in the dark. Again, we get a sense of the hard daily labor a man must face. Yet this man, as well as Patrick's father, seems to be a master of his craft. These two approach their work, and their lives, with a contentment, yet it would be difficult to say they are truly happy.

Time passes quickly and we run into Patrick again, chasing after some missing millionaire and falling in love with the millionaire's mistress. This is where things get wonky. First of all, the novel takes us away from Patrick for a fairly extensive amount of time, and then it returns us to him much older. Second of all, too many questions pop up about his new circumstances (how he is able to seduce an actress?) that make the story less believable. Also, why should we care about all of this? Patrick is the least interesting of the novel's characters. He feels more like a blank slate than a fully-fleshed out person. Things happen to him. He does things, sometimes extreme things, only because Ondaatje wills him to do so. Motivation be damned. Bizarre things happen that make the story difficult to believe. Whenever I became enchanted with a character or with a description of a character's working life details, the story would go back to dull Patrick and the strangeness surrounding him.

Had the novel been about Temelcoff or even the thief, Caravaggio, who appears much later, it would have been much more enjoyable. Watching them at work at their craft was a lot of fun. Watching Patrick struggle to attain an identity felt too choppy, especially since the novel does break to show the lives of these other two more fascinating characters. Those who fall in love with the poetic quality of writing will likely enjoy this novel. Those who need a little bit more in terms of story will have trouble finding the motivation to continue reading.

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