What is under the skin?

by karmill

The opening paragraphs in Michael Ondaatje’s historical novel In the Skin Of A Lion find us in a vehicle with the main character, Patrick Lewis, and a young girl, who are setting out on a 4 hour trip. The story that follows from there unfolds over time in Toronto in front of the backdrop of the construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct, the massive Water Filtration Plant, and small towns in rural Ontario. The story mainly revolves around Patrick and focuses on his very few intimate relationships, and the surrounding communities of immigrant laborers, thieves and the poor and desperate, as well as the rich and powerful. Patrick’s encounters with the characters of the book involve contrasting themes of isolation and intense intimacy, laborer versus powerful rich men, joy and grief, freedom and prison, love and hate.

The title of the book comes from a quote at the beginning of the book from the Epic of Gilgamesh “.. I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion.” Ondaatje’s references to the different ‘skins’ worn in the story are illustrated in descriptions of ice forming on bodies after a plunge into a river in bitter winter, “little seeds of explosive on his apparel.”, a nun’s habit turned into a street skirt, layers of mud shed along with clothes at the end of a long work day, stage make-up removed after stepping away from a role, and a body painted to hide from the world. Ondaatje also suggests wearing the ‘skin’ of another person in descriptions of Patrick assuming the lifestyle, beliefs and politics of his lover, and remaining isolated in the immigrant community around him, where he cannot understand the language or much about the culture. He can safely hide in this community. Patrick eventually encounters a person who, while different circumstances and lifestyle, is really not so different under the skin. In the end, Patrick steps out from hiding to tell his story to the young girl in the car, which is her story also.

Ondaatje’s has described himself as a poet/evolved into novelist, and hints of poetry appear in his prose. The description of the bitter cold of a morning ride on the back of an open truck to the bridge construction site, also includes a beautiful line of poetry in describing the light rising as “The fast evaporation of darkness.” And, when Patrick sees that there are lives around him happening in spite of him, his thoughts are “And he himself was nothing but a prism that refracted their lives.” The book is a powerful story, delivered in a poetic manner.


One Comment to “What is under the skin?”

  1. Strong review. I too wondered whether or not “In the Skin of a Lion,” was in it’s entirety simply Patrick telling his story to Hana. Much of the novel reminded me of the way a person would tell a story to another person, instead of the way someone would typically write a novel. Glad I wasn’t the only one who possibly made this connection.

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