In the Skin of a Lion Paperback – Jun 18 1996
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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
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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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
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.
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!
Most recent customer reviews
This one is basically the straw that broke the camel's back when it comes to my experience of modern literature. Read morePublished 6 months ago by The Idler
...gripping and funny and sexy and sad and insightful and introspective and nostalgic and erotic and interesting and ________. Read morePublished on Jan. 2 2012 by David Sabine
... but there is order here, very faint, very human." This should be the first sentence of every novel, the narrator reflects midway in Michael Ondaatje extraordinary novel. Read morePublished on July 6 2009 by Friederike Knabe
This is supposed to be a classic, highly recommened to me by a literate friend. I agree that it is poetic, and has a gossamer feel to it. But, I found it a tedious read. Read morePublished on April 11 2004 by David C Polk
This is supposed to be a classic, highly recommened to me by a literate friend. I agree that it is poetic, and has a gossimer feel to it. But, I found it a tedious read. Read morePublished on April 11 2004 by David C Polk