A John Berger quote in the pages preceding In the Skin of a Lion states “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one”. This proclamation engulfs Michael Ondaatje’s writing as stories and characters grow and flow out – and back in – of one another.
Set in Depression-Era Ontario and centred on the workers of the Toronto’s Bloor St. Viaduct and Water Filtration Plant Michael Ondaatje creates rich visual tapestries of a world with little visual history. The story is told primarily from the perspective of rural-raised Patrick Lewis. Although we generally see his humbly emerging development through his own eyes it’s the lives of others from whence his life is understood – reinforcing Berger’s mantra. The character of Patrick embodies Ondaatje’s own writing style; obsessed with intricate particulars and nuances. This is showcased in the life of Patrick through his enthrallment with bugs at night, the curvature and beauty of lover Clara’s body and the meticulous specifics of lover Alice’s personality.
Ondaatje exposes his characters through a methodical “cast-forward and reel back”, jumping into timelines midway through. He charges through significant stories, new characters introduced with no explanation, their back-story only to be revealed chapters later. This is one of the many ploys Ondaatje utilizes to challenge the reader. Dialogue jumps in and out of paragraphs with sentences often going unattributed. Conversations start in mid-prose, often going unnoticed until mid-dialogue. Ondaatje’s background in poetry makes a forceful impression on the writing. Although this often tests the reader’s patience it is ultimately rewarding with single lines, stanzas and paragraphs with enough depth and complexity to chew on for weeks afterwards.
While his scrupulous historical accuracy can be distracting and laborious it ultimately blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction imploring the reader to accept and digest the story as if it were a second-hand telling of family history. He makes his world a reality through precise details like the radio music of Fats Waller, Toronto’s city-planning visionary R.C. Harris or the geography of urban and rural Ontario. Beyond this attention to specifics it’s in his characters where a deeper reality is found. Each character evolves while retaining core features and as the story carries we see a common thread that for each of them; within their greatest strengths lays their flaws – possibly another allusion to Ondaatje’s writing within his characters. Whether it’s Patrick’s romance and softness leaving him malleable and susceptible, the premature maturity of orphaned Hana or the sexual leverage of temptress Clara allowing but ultimately cheating her of freedom.
While In the Skin of a Lion holds enough simple beauty for amateur readers with patience, it has profundity sufficient for scholars. It can stand alone as a worthwhile read but a greater knowledge of literary history reveals layers upon layers of intricacy and depth in its writing. This necessitates rereading as each coursing uncovers a new book. Therefore never again should this story be read as though it were only one.