In The Skin Of A Lion: The Perfect Book to Read in March
They say that, weather-wise, March comes in like a lion, so what better way to start it off than with Michael Ondaatje’s 1987 lyrical masterpiece, In the Skin of a Lion? While you wait out the forceful rains or winds that this month brings, let art imitate life and get swept away in the explosive love, loss, and logging (really, there are dynamiters of river log jams) of this tumultuous rendition of early 1900’s Ontario.
“His own life was no longer a single story but part of a mural, which was a falling together of accomplices. Patrick saw a wondrous night web… A nun on a bridge, a daredevil who was unable to sleep without drink, a boy watching a fire from his bed at night, an actress who rain away with a millionaire–the detritus and chaos of the age.”
This little interior monologue basically sums up the novel: each of those characters has their own story lines and Patrick, whom the novel follows from childhood to adulthood, is the thread that connects them. In the Skin of a Lion is really like a tapestry, its elements woven together seamlessly and intricately. Most notable, I think, is the weaving together of history and fiction, disparate characters and plot lines, and poetry and prose. (Warning: there will be gushing ahead. I really love this book)
History and fiction: The novel opens with a line from John Berger: “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one,” which becomes a running theme throughout the novel. Ondaatje details the history of Toronto being built– the Bloor Street Viaduct, the tunnel under Lake Ontario– by imagining the stories of the immigrants working on those projects, stories that would never have been a part of a historical master narrative. Ondaatje includes both real and fictional characters and events, entwining them together so well that the reader becomes convinced of their possibility, reminding of us of the numerous possible stories outside of official histories, of the innumerable individual stories that make up the collective whole.
Disparate characters: The eclectic mix of the young logger from backwoods Ontario, the Marxist nun, the disappeared millionaire, the radio actress, and the fearless Macedonian immigrant worker seems like it could be a difficult one to connect. But as Patrick grows up and moves to Toronto, all of their stories intertwine seamlessly. What I love most about it is that none of them are sidelines to Patrick’s journey; the characters and back-stories are all extremely well-developed. In fact, my favorite story is the one that has the least to do with Patrick: the story of his future girlfriend Alice, long before she met him. The story of a nun swept off the unfinished viaduct by the wind, caught by a harnessed worker underneath the bridge. It’s quiet and beautiful as they sit silently in a closed restaurant afterwards and she removes her veil to make a sling for his dislocated arm. Once he passes out, “she bent down and kissed him, then began walking around the room. This orchard. Strangers kiss softly as moths, she thought.”
Poetry and Prose: The most stunning achievement of this novel, for me, is the way in which Ondaatje weaves together poetry and prose. Language is a huge theme in the novel, its power to marginalize and its power to create. There is much emphasis on story: the title references The Epic of Gilgamesh, the first recorded myth. But, it goes further than just the role of the story-teller; the voice of the story-teller is equally important in In the Skin of a Lion.
- Rhythm: The dialogue in the novel is honed and direct and even at times iambic. There is a clear and distinct rhythm in the sparse conversations that makes them read like poetry. Even apart from dialogue, the rhythm is always present, and short fragmented sentences are interspersed carefully with longer, flowing phrases.
- Imagery: When it comes to figurative language, however, the narrative is anything but sparse. The novel opens and closes with the same scene– Patrick and Alice’s daughter in a car. The opening section reads like a poem in which Patrick is “a man [who] picks up and brings together various corners of the story, attempting to carry it all in his arms. And he is tired.” One of my favorite images is when he really sees Alice for the first time (up until this point he had been in love with her best friend): “He sits and watches her… The woman he looked through when in love with Clara. Clara’s eclipse. The phrase like a flower or an event named during last century.”
- Word Choice: Each and every word in this 244 page novel is carefully chosen. Patrick is one of the main storytellers of the novel and he “believed in archaic words like befall and doomed… The words suggested spells and visions, a choreography of fate.” And I really think that final image sums up the poetics of this novel– it is more than just a narration, a relaying of events; it is an art, a dance, a choreography of fate.
I was having dinner with a well-known Canadian poet last month, and she said, laughingly, that she likes to drink coffee when reading Michael Ondaatje because it’s like eating cheesecake. One day this March when you are rained in, I’d take her advice. Pour yourself a cup of dark roast and savor the lyricism of In the Skin of a Lion.