There Is No Greater Love

by Brian Rapanos

In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Ondaatje, is a heart-breaking love story set in the tumultuous city of Toronto in the 20s and 30s. As well as exploring themes of class, post-colonialism and social justice, we follow the novel’s main character, Patrick Lewis, on his epic journey in search of money, love, and meaning. Overwhelmingly visual and effortlessly poetic, an enigmatic plot is often substituted with detailed visual descriptions that attempt to paint the story rather than merely recount it.

The novel begins with a remembrance of Patrick’s childhood.  Early on, we are presented with stark images of hardship and struggle that are common themes in the novel. Fittingly entitled “Little Seeds”, the first chapter introduces many of Patrick’s fundamental personality traits as well as foreshadows many future events. Ondaatje evokes a feeling of conception, where henceforth Patrick is as much governed by destiny as by choice.

In the proceeding chapters, “The Bridge” and “The Searcher”, the turbulent setting of the story fully manifests itself. Traveling to Toronto in the 1920s, Patrick, now a young man, witnesses the construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct and experiences the overwhelming nature of the city as only a farm boy can. To Patrick, coming to Toronto was as if he saw “land after years at sea.” While in Toronto, Patrick is employed as a “searcher” and is presented the job of finding the vanished millionaire Ambrose Small. Patrick’s searching leads him to find love and experience loss and the major theme of post-colonialism is explored when Patrick lives in a Macedonian neighbourhood.

From that stage forth Patrick’s journey begins and the true force of Ondaatje’s vision is brought to bear. A multitude of characters are introduced: a thief, a nun, a baker, villains, lovers, and heroes. Patrick’s individual experiences seemingly encompass the essence of the 1920s and 30s. Patrick embodies the desire, tragedy, hope, and exploitation of the working class of that time.

The brilliance of Ondaatje’s writing is truly expressed by his ability to leave out or delay elements of the plot, allowing the reader to experience a more intimate connection with the novel. In this way it is similar to reading poetry: rich with imagery yet never overbearingly wordy. The characters are never over-analysed and often left distant and protective. Speech from the characters is often overlooked in favour of actions and raw emotion. In this way reality is often blurred in that so much of the plot is presented in fleeting glances. Frustrating at times, even past and present is blurred as Ondaatje seems to favour subtly over clarity. I would highly recommend In the Skin of a Lion. In particular, anybody who enjoys poetry will love this book.


One Comment to “There Is No Greater Love”

  1. Nice review. I particularly like your final paragraph, it truly does describe Ondaatje’s writing style in the novel and how he is able “to leave out or delay elements of the plot, allowing the reader to experience a more intimate connection with the novel.” Well said.

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