“… On his streets, their streets, for he was their alien” (113).

by Parmis

The history of Toronto is a colourful one. Home to the highest immigration rates in Canada, Toronto is nicknamed “The Gateway for Immigrants.” In 2006 the national census calculated just over 6 million foreign-born residents living in Canada, in which nearly half (2.3 million) lived in Toronto alone. They represented nearly one-fifth (19.8%) of the total population, this being the highest percentage since the national census from 1911 to 1931, when 22.2% of the population was foreign born (Statistics Canada). Interestingly enough, the period of 1911 to 1931 coincides almost exactly to the time in which Michael Ondaatje embarks us on a journey through In the Skin of a Lion which tells the story of various young settlers, each with their own story that crosses paths with one another in the turbulent city of Toronto.

Ondaatje takes us back to the period of the early nineteenth century, when immigration was just beginning to take off. In the Skin of a Lion tells the vicarious stories of the young and exploited working class, a famed radio actress with a missing millionaire, a baker, and an antecedent nun with a near death experience. It is told from the vantage point of its various string of characters, all intertwined like separate branches of vines constantly crisscrossing at various points in their lives. Ondaatje seamlessly travels from character to character, from time period to time period leaving the reader constantly guessing. Although each story is told separately, they are all connected by the underlying theme of identity and its ability to morph and change over lifetimes. “Each person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story” (157).

Michael Ondaatje is a Sri-Lankan Canadian novelist, who being an immigrant himself, moved to Canada in 1962. As a poet turned novelist, Ondaatje has developed a crisp and unique style to his writing, tackling his writing with the technique of a poet. With this in mind, it sets this book apart from other reads as Ondaatje allows for reader participation in the novel. Although at some points, as readers, we wish Ondaatje would do the work for us and allow us to simply be carried through the story of our young settlers. However, it is that very style is makes this a novel of true work of artistry as it is able to stand alone and stay relevant as time goes on. As we readers change, this book changes with us, as you are an active participant in the story making.

Toronto can be seen as a microcosm for Canada as a nation. Toronto’s demography shows vast diversity and is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. As Ondaatje takes us back to explore the history of this vibrant city and its immigrants, we are woven through tales of love, terror, mystery and triumph; through the tales of the forgotten builders of the city.



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