Evoking Emotion

by Jessica Brodeur

“In the Skin of a Lion” is a multi-layered piece of literature that invites the reader into the complicated life and times of Canada in and around the 1920s. By touching on bits and pieces of Patrick Lewis’ life and the lives of those around him, Michael Ondaatje takes the reader on a back and forth, even “cubic” journey as the story jumps around in time and space. The development of Toronto itself – mainly the R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant – gives a concrete and historical time line and setting. The reader quickly learns that the book is much more than just a document – that it evokes struggle and hardship, love and loss, and deep feeling. Patrick Lewis’s romantic relationships lead him to meet unexpected friends and make even more unexpected connections as he digs in the past. His strong emotions – be it love or remorse or revenge – take him down a path oh which he can never turn back .

The book read in a sense like a play. The characters, besides Patrick Lewis himself, seem outlandish and exaggerated. Exact moments, even habits and auras come easily to the imagination as one reads. The dialogue is powerful and, as much as a book can be, ranges in volume. Although the setup is choppy in style, each scene is a sort of stage on which the characters appear at different points throughout their lives. In its three-part style,  a little bit of suspense is built and some surprise twists appear. Even the costumes and makeup can be imagined vividly as gritty, rancid, and often gruelling work is described meticulously to outline the livelihoods of bridge builders, tunnel diggers, bakers, dyers, and criminals. As much as these passages add to the story, Ondaatje was also attempting to immortalize the workers that helped poor the foundation of Toronto a century ago.

Throughout the book, Ondaatje scratches the surface about issues of social inequality and exploitation, racial relations and migration, but he never dives fully into a deep commitment with this. This is characteristic of his style: leaving plenty to the reader to interpret, put together, and follow up on.

Relationships are the key to understanding Oondatje’s intentions and the development of the plot and cast. Connections of dependency, love, brotherhood, and even searching for someone the character has never even met are explored. The hope is that the reader will experience the sensual nature of the relationships as they shape the storyline, that emotions will be evoked as the story is told. Poetry and prose meet in a moving way to play out the story of “In the Skin of a Lion.”

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