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In the Skin of a Lion
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on February 11, 2001
In 1987, Ondaatje wrote his chef d'ouevre, In the Skin of a Lion, which combines the best of his previous prose, poetry, and recent autobiography. Here one will see fictional characters come to believable life, prose more sonorous than most poetry of the day, and learn more about the history and politics of Canada than one does at school (unless, of course, one is lucky enough to be Canadian.) Many feel (and I believe rightly so) that this is the book that should have won the prestigious Booker Prize--an honor later given to 1992's The English Patient. Certainly, this is the book that helped give birth to the latter. It is here that we meet Patrick Lewis, Caravaggio, and a much younger Hana. Lewis is the anti-hero of the story, so deftly written that we grow with him, we love with him, and we grieve with him. I somehow feel that Patrick is closer to Ondaatje's heart more so than any other character that he's written until the advent of Kip in The English Patient. The tale of Patrick's life in "Upper America" made me weep at each reading, as did the sheer beauty of Ondaatje's prose. In my humble opinion, it is his finest prose to date.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 21, 2002
I will begin with the problem of the book. It reads initially slowly. This is, for many, a problem. It's dense prose, in fractured time. It's also a traditional story, with a plot that moves in a direct line up to the pointed climax, and then a resolution down from that high point.
Basically, the beginning is slow, yet dense, and becomes more intense as time passes. If you have not the patience to push through the first thirty pages, you should stop reading books. The plot thickens, and intensifies until the moment of pointed climax. And I cannot say 'Shh' without a shiver.
The prose: gorgeous without being over-the-top. The characters: firmly and clearly human, while each is a little super-human in their own quiet ways, as many of us are.
In other words, one of the greatest novels in the world to emerge from the late twentieth century. The techniques are firmly rooted in time and place, and the words shed light on a world that is, for us, indescribable. A heart, and a mind, so rare to find together, lies before you. Be prepared for a life-changing journey.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 2000
I am trapped by these words, I slow down on each one almost notwanting to know what comes next because I know it'll most certainly besomething that puts me in awe and leaves me hungry for more.
I thought The English Patient was a wonderful book, I walked in Libyan desert looking for Zerzura for weeks after reading that book. But In The Skin Of A Lion is something so much more. This book moves me so I'm left speechless. The continuance, the surprises, the beauty, the characters. If it was possible to choose to write like someone I would absolutely pick Michael Ondaatje. His work is simply beautiful.
I am amazed. Read this book, read all of them. Find the fine red line that ties all the stories together. END
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 1, 2000
I preface this by saying I'm one of the few who did not enjoy the English Patient. I did enjoy this.
The dreamlike, almost random quality of the narrative is amazing and it's filled with wonderdully imagined details and scenes that really put me in awe of this writer. I laughed out loud when Carvaggio escapes prison by painting himself blue, and found myself really touched by the imprints of his lost love that the main character finds continually.
Also, it is obvious the writer did an intense ammount of research into the lives of the people of the 1930's in canada. The workmen, the political statements, the actions all seem so real and work as a good balance to the dreamlike details.
His two weaknesses seem to be his dialogue and the ending. The dialogue constantly pulled me out of the dreamstate I was so happy to be in; I could never hear people talking like they do in this work, but maybe the people I know are vastly different than Ondaatje. The ending was also dissatisfying; it wrapped up almost like a political thriller instead of adhering to the poetic quality that really drives the work.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 6, 2000
I thought this was a mystical enchanting book. The descriptions of work were strong and powerful. Who can forget the images of dangeling from the bridge, dynamiting the log jams, digging the waterworks tunnel. Partrick is a "Billy Budd" character committed to ideals and responsibilities. A question. On page 224 it says "He [Harris] stood over Patrick." 'He lay down to sleep, until he was woken from out of a dream. He saw the lions around him glorying in life; then he took his axe in his hand, he drew his sword from his belt, and he fell upon them like an arrow from the string." Brackets are mine. I feel sure this a Biblical reference. Do you know where it is from? I am very interested to know the answer. Please reply to nhalff@aol.com
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on March 6, 2010
In the Skin of a Lion is many stories in one: a solitary farm boy trying to make it in the Big City, a story of passion and obsession, a story of a city's forgotten history, and a story about the immigrant experience in 1920s Toronto.

As with Ondaatje's other novels, the story can be dense and difficult to follow at times. The writing, however, is wonderful and makes you keep reading even when you're not entirely sure what exactly you're reading about. Ondaatje's writing is like poetry. He has such a beautiful way with words, I found myself rereading passages regularly just to feel the words again.

I read that one of the things Ondaatje intended to do with this novel is shine a light on a part of Canadian history, and Toronto's local history that often gets overlooked. The Bloor Street Viaduct and the Harris Waterworks are Toronto landmarks that were built by immigrants who, once the work was done, were largely forgotten. Ondaatje does a masterful job of bringing the building of these landmarks to life. He captures the sense of grandeur, adventure, danger, frustration of the time. These were my favourite parts of the novel.

Very highly recommended!
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on April 15, 2002
As some of the reviewers have said, _In The Skin Of A Lion_ must be read slowly to be truly appreciated, otherwise much of the subtleties of this beautifully written, poetic, and sometimes maddeningly abstract novel will be missed. I usually have no difficulty reading a book while travelling on a train or a bus, but with this book the various distractions made it very difficult to do so. On a number of occasions I found it worthwhile to backtrack to re-read much of what I missed in my first reading.
The book, not so much plot driven, acts more as a mood piece on the romances of Patrick Lewis, the main character, as well as painterly images of the Canadian farms and woodlands and then of workmen's tunnelling under the Great Lakes to build the waterworks which play a very important part in the novel. Then there's the prison escape scene, which may be described as "a meditation in blue."
When plot and action take over, the story becomes incredibly riveting. It made me proud of those individuals, often times desperate, who have risked probable prison terms, and even their lives, to fight for the rights of the little people who built the world's great architectural structures against the millionaires who exploited these workers for financial gain. Patrick Lewis (and Caravaggio, who later appears in _The English Patient_) is such a man, and he is the novel's true heroic anti-hero.
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on January 5, 2001
There is no more poetic and skillful an author on the scene today and this book is a fine illustration of his extraordinary talent. Part of the "big deal" that some fail to see is the sheer mastery with which Ondaatje paints a very deep and complicated portrait of the protagonist and his historical and geographical contexts. He comes at the characters and the plot from a variety of angles. But unlike Faulkner, (those who think this novel difficult should open "The Sound and the Fury"!) Ondaatje uses third person narration to keep us from getting lost. Ondaatje use of metaphor is almost overwhelming and that, ironically, is one of my problems with the book.
It is a bit too romantic in its depictions of some exceedingly difficult lives and there are too many metaphoric descriptions. Everything seems weighted. Nothing is light or allowed to pass easily. That is why some say the book is slow. But it does move along quite well. You need to read it slowly. It's not something to be crammed down or hurried.
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on August 19, 2000
Michael Ondaatje, the author of "The English Patient," tells the story of Patrick Lewis, a mid-western Canadian farmboy whose father was an explosions specialist who worked with the loggers. Lewis leaves the backwoods and moves to Toronto where seems to be a stranger in his own country. His unusual story revolves somewhat around the building of the waterworks in Toronto in the early half of the century, a monumental work effort involving the building of bridges and viaducts into Lake Ontario. His life takes many turns - some involving the disappearance of a rich man, and the love of an actress. He becomes a specialist with dynamite as well and ends up in jail for an act of some defiance against an antiunionist, anti-immigrant bureaucracy. Ondaatje has a style of writing which is lyrical and poetic (he is, in fact, a published poet) and one needs to be in a quiet room, or an isolated place to absorb all of the stimulus that this writing provides the reader. It is a cerebral novel, and although there is romance and violence, they are depicted in such a way that the reader is softly eased into each circumstance with the fluidity of the words.
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on December 1, 1999
I read this book after seeing, and reading "The English Patient" several times. Ondaatje's exquisite poetic images linger in my mind and will continue to do so for a very long time.
I've worked and lived in Toronto, and still visit often. After reading this book, Toronto is no longer a vast, cosmopolitan urban sprawl I once knew, but now a city built on the efforts, pains and passions of innumerable people that have gone before us. Insignificant landmarks take on a new meaning. Ondaatje gives Toronto an air of magical realism, reminiscient to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
One of the reasons I bought this book was so that I could get greater insight into Hanna, Carvaggio, Patrick and Clara whom I had met in "The English Patient". Many of the images from the latter book occur in "The skin of a Lion", but personally, I was a bit disappointed in this context. I realism I'm just expressing my own views here.
Finally, I'm still having trouble with the entire plot. If somebody...anybody has any insight into the plot, I'd love to know.
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