In the Skin of a Lion|
by Michael Ondaatje,
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by Damian Tarnopolsky
The re-issue of Michael Ondaatje's second novel, In the Skin of a Lion (Vintage, 244 pages, $14.95), will doubtless win less attention than the forthcoming film of his third, The English Patient. This is a pity, for although the re-issue harbours no attractive film stars, it is a noteworthy novel that glistens through its flaws. In the Skin of a Lion still stands almost a decade after publication because it tells history in so luminous a style that the moment of telling is effaced. Ondaatje's fluid prose and historical subject-matter raise the novel above any simple categorization as late 1980s.
The plot is a little wide-ranging for a book of medium length, and at times curls in on itself too forcibly. In part, it follows Patrick Lewis from childhood in eastern Ontario and contact with a group of immigrant lumber workers through his move to Toronto in the 1920s. Here he falls in love with the mistress of a vanished millionaire, and is caught up in the violent labour struggles of the working class. The narrative is led along by a succession of sometimes bizarre scenes that make one wish this novel had been filmed: a thief is painted the bright blue colour of a roof to escape from prison, and sings Cole Porter in Italian; a nun blown off the Bloor Street viaduct; a subversive puppet show staged in the half-built water-works; and so on. In lesser hands these scenes might have been irritatingly "quirky"; in Ondaatje's they hang together with the peculiarity of memory. The quiet radiance of his writing also makes the unpromising subject, the physical and demographic construction of Toronto, into one worthy of dreams. Lewis and his lovers are as subtly evoked:
"He saw something there he would never fully reach-the way Clara dissolved and suddenly disappeared from him, or the way Alice came to him it seemed in a series of masks or painted faces, both of these women like the sea through a foreground of men."
One can almost allow the awkwardness of the political analysis and a finale reminiscent only of a World War II B-movie to pass without comment. They get in the way, small sediment in the flow of supple, charmed prose. They are not enough to prevent In the Skin of a Lion from being one of the better novels of 1996 as well as 1987.