In the Skin of a Lion

by giannabasso

Michael Ondaatje’s, In the Skin of a Lion, is nothing short of brilliant. An expose of the migrant condition, a novel caressed by imagery and poetry, the perfect blend that keeps one longing for more. It is one of the few novels that I was actually eager to finish. Not because I was forced to but because I couldn’t get enough of Ondaatje’s euphemistic poetry and striking details. Like a lucid dream, you’re brought into this unfamiliar world where there is a defined lined between rich and poor. Where blood, sweat and tears are poured into not only the physical labour, the Viaduct but into the labor of love, Clara. “Here they had pushed in frenzy, sexual madness. He finds the faint impression of her backbone on the white paint.” One of my favourite quotes, wrapped with the sensuality in both Ondaatje’s language and details you can’t help but close your eyes and picture yourself there, right in that moment.
The Characters that Ondaatje draws upon are so passionately and intimately made. Their pain, desires and actions are laid out so delicately. Reading the novel feels like one is watching a silent film. His vignette like scenes unravels in my mind as I anticipate the next scene, the next breath, and the next touch. The setting of Ondaatje’s, In the Skin of a Lion, takes place in Toronto in the 1920s. His description of the Bloor Street Viaduct and the R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant focuses heavily on the lives of the immigrant workers that toiled day and night for years. He describes these structures so vividly, drawing upon his research and time spent in the archives of the City of Toronto.
The book is broken down into sections. Book one with, Little Seeds, The Bridge and The searcher. Book two with, Palace of Purification and Remorse and book three with Caravaggio and the Maritime Theatre. Ondaatje allows Patrick Lewis, one of the main characters, to develop from a boy into a man throughout the sections. The tittles are little insights into the future of the characters and plot. “Perhaps it was an exceptional puppet of cloth as opposed to an exceptional human being.” Ondaatje has this way of challenging the boundaries between genres and states of being, giving animation to a variety of inanimate objects throughout the novel.
The one thing I was dissatisfied with was the ending. I felt like there should have been something else. It ends with, “lights, he said”. It felt like the book just went right back to the start. I was left longing for more, but an exceptional read to say the least. This is a book for those who enjoy reading for reading’s sake.


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