In the Skin of Toronto

by aliwhitee

Michael Ondaatje’s “In the Skin of the Lion” is an interwoven series of stories creating a fascinating and passionate historical account of Toronto in the 1920s. This accurate description of the time period depicts Toronto as a city filled with opportunity and imagination. The novel follows the life of Patrick Lewis, beginning in rural Ontario with his father learning the ropes of his trade, until his father dies in a dynamite incident. The reader is then taken years later into Patrick’s future in the city of Toronto, where he falls in love with Clara Dickens, the mistress of the missing millionaire Ambrose Small. After Clara is gone from his life, Patrick finds himself working in the dim, dirty tunnel under Lake Ontario, one of many labourers contributing to the creation of the Bloor Street Viaduct. Throughout the novel Ondaatje introduces several characters and their interconnected relationships with Patrick and each other, without allowing the reader to fully understand the stories of each character. These other characters, a rescued nun turned actress, a bridge worker turned baker, and a thief turned accomplice, all contribute to the challenges and passions of Patrick’s life.

Ondaatje’s evocative writing creates a poetic account of Toronto in 1920s situated in a theoretical and historical framework. He is able to give new meanings to landmarks that may seem insignificant to some through the efforts, pains, and passions of innumerable people. Written in a time of mass immigration and innovation, the story was depicted through the eyes of the mainly immigrant workers, who were responsible for the building of some of the city’s greatest structures. Ondaatje gives these workers recognition in a time when they were mainly unnoticed, providing them with the credit they deserve for their labour. “In the Skin of a Lion” additionally touches on the class struggle between those who envision the city and those who physically create it, such as Patrick.  The masses of labourers in their grinding poverty are well contrasted with the privileged rich. The characters’ hardships evoke emotions of passion and frustration towards those in power on both the reader and the characters themselves.  Patrick is used as bridge between the characters and the storyline, combined through historical fact and Ondaatje’s poetic fiction.

Overall, Ondaatje’s novelistic skills provide the reader with rich literary insight into the historical development of 1920s Toronto. Although Ondaatje tended to leave out areas of the plot, it allows the reader to fill these gaps with their own imagination, making the reader curious as to whether they have guessed correctly or not. “In the Skin of a Lion” is a novel perfect for readers who enjoy a combination of history and literary intrigue, if this sounds like you, Michael Ondaatje is your guy.

 

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