Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion
uses its Toronto setting in the way that Martin Amis's London Fields
uses London or Mordecai Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
uses Montreal. In Skin
, Toronto is a main character, although it's a character few of us have seen before. Set in the 1920s and '30s, the novel replaces the official history of Toronto's industrial adolescence, a history of commissioned architecture and suited politicians with ceremonial shovels, with an immigrant's history of crushing labour, repressive laws, a new language gleaned from matinee plays, and crowded apartment buildings where "a bottle of fruit whiskey" could often be found on summer nights dangling on "a long piece of twine" from fire escape to fire escape for all to share.
A quartet of vibrant characters animates Ondaatje's reclaimed Toronto. Farm-boy Patrick Lewis relocates to Toronto with a dual inheritance: a habit of solitude and a marketable skill with dynamite. Nicholas Temelcoff is a daredevil builder on the Bloor St. Viaduct eager for the most dangerous and acrobatic jobs. Alice Gull transforms the dedication of an early vocation into the passions of an actress and a political revolutionary. Italian thief David Caravaggio robs "the mean rich, the soft rich" and (literally) paints his way out of prison.
Virtuosos in isolation, the characters are beset by forces beyond their control. Ondaatje's tale ends up questioning the very abilities that it so delights in depicting: might the "solitary" strength of a hero be a curse rather than a blessing? Rewriting as it does the history of a growing, multicultural metropolis, In the Skin of a Lion plays with public history and private passion to examine the very fabric of community. --Darryl Whetter
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From Publishers Weekly
A spellbinding writer, Ondaatje exhibits a poet's sensibility and care for the precise, illuminating word. The author of Coming Through Slaughter and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid again paints an impressionistic picture mixing real events and intersected fictional lives. We meet Patrick Lewis in his youth, living in the harsh but beautiful Canadian back country, with his father, a dynamiter of log jams. The action then segues to Toronto in the 1920s, where daredevil bridge builders, immigrants from many countries, are engaged in erecting an enormous span. A scene in which a young nun is swept off the unfinished bridge on a stormy night will make readers gasp; descriptions of the skill and agility of the bridge workers and the laborers who build a tunnel under Lake Ontario, going about their work in the yawning maw of danger, are also graphically stunning. When Patrick comes to Toronto, feeling himself an immigrant from the provinces, his life becomes entwined with those of actresses Clara Dickens and Alice Gull, with whom he experiences love, despair and, eventually, compulsion to commit a violent act. Ondaatje everywhere uses "a spell of language" to spin his brilliantly evoked tale. He writes, "The best art can order the chaotic tumble of events" and "the first sentence of every novel should be: 'Trust me, this will take time, but there is order here, very faint, very human.' " Both statements aptly describe this beautiful work.
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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