In the Skin of a Lion Review

by bmittlestead

In the skin of a lion, by Michael Ondaatje, is a novel that takes you into the life and along the eventful journey of the immigrants in Canada in the early 1900-1930’s.  This fictional narrative captures the emotional and physical hardships that these settlers endure to help build their cities. It tells the story of characters Patrick Lewis and fellow immigrants and explores their lives as they sacrifice much of their time and efforts, sometimes even their lives, to build such historic monuments as Toronto’s Harris Water Treatment Plant and the Prince Edward Viaduct. It follows his life from childhood to adulthood and gives an in depth look into his intimate relationships. Throughout the novel the reader is introduced to many characters varying from Patrick’s family to his future lovers. 

Ondaatje illustrates his story though the excellent use of captivating imagery.  He establishes this visual theme beginning on the very first page, “he can see two or three lanterns between the soft maple and walnut tree. He hears their boots on gravel. Thirty loggers, wrapped up dark, carrying axes and small packages of food which hang from their belts…Already they seem exhausted, before the energy of the sun.”  He continues to embed the settings into the readers mind throughout the entire novel.  Ondaatje engages the reader using many elements of setting that appeal to all the senses.  Through these techniques the reader has no choice but to leave their surroundings and surrender to those of the book.

The novel starts out with young Patrick growing up admiring the older men in his community and shadowing his father as much as possible.  He acquires the skills necessary to join his father’s trade as a dynamiter. He is later brought to Toronto where he uses these skills to do unpleasant work digging and blasting tunnels on the Harris Water Treatment Plant.  Throughout this story Patrick is involved in a number of relationships with several characters, both friendly and intimate.  Ondaatje harnesses the powerful feelings of passion and love to intensify the relationships between his characters, “Her hand came up to his face again, her fingers feeling his skin, the flesh on his cheeks.”  A few of the characters come and go throughout the story, but they are never far away. 

Michael Ondaatje is an amazing well known author and he wasted no talent writing this book.  This novel has won many awards including the 1988 City of Toronto Book Award, 2002 Canada Reads Competition, and was a finalist for the 1987 Ritz Paris Hemingway Award. His methods for creating intense visuals and an intimate relationship with the reader are unforgettable, and are something that should definitely be experienced.

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