Fact Curiously Meets Fiction – Jessica Mah

by capreviewroom

Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion has readers hooked right from the opening pages. Ondaatje outlines life during the industrialization of Toronto in the 1920’s. Faithful to many historical events, Ondaatje is capable of conveying a realistic atmosphere. The characters come and go throughout the novel as their lives intertwine.

The first part of Book 1, “Little Seeds”, introduces us to Patrick Lewis , a little boy living on a farm with his father. As a young boy, he has a fascination for the working men. Ondaatje will keep this theme of labourers throughout the novel as one can suspect that he wishes for readers to respect these workers who really did live a life similar to the one he describes. The next two parts of Book 1, “The Bridge” and “The Searcher”, is where we meet the majority of the people that will be important to Patrick. The hero of theBloor Streetviaduct is Nicholas Temelcoff. He saved a nun from falling off the bridge – “his hand’s timing had been immaculate, the grace of the habit, and he found himself a moment later holding the figure against him dearly” (32).  Next, we are back with Patrick, he is now a searcher inToronto. He is on the lookout for Ambrose Small, a very wealthy man who has disappeared. Patrick meets with Clara Dickens, Small’s mistress to learn more about the man. He fell instantly in love with Clara and “wondered if at first she had been something he wanted to steal, not because she was Clara but because she belonged to the enemy (72). Patrick also meets Alice Gull , a friend of Clara’s, who becomes important later on. In the second book, at centre stage is a blooming relationship. Patrick, at this point of the story is a dynamiter like his father was. He bumps into Alice who he will fall in love with but she will be taken from him shortly after in an accidental death. Angry, Patrick blows up a hotel and ends up in prison. In the final book of the novel, Patrick meets his inmate Carvaggio. With the help of Patrick, Carvaggio escapes from prison. Upon his own release, Patrick makes taking care of Hana, Alice Gull’s young daughter, his main priority as well as finding Clara.

The first epigraph is where the title of the novel came from. “The joyful will stoop with sorrow, and when you have gone to the earth I will let my hair grow long for your sake, I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion” (The Epic of Gilgamesh). Certain occurrences found in Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion mirrors scenes in the Gilgamesh Epic, an ancient Babylonian text. This particular epigraph is relevant because Gilgamesh speaks of his grief for his dead friend which is a key similarity to the grief that Patrick experiences because of Alice. The second epigraphy emphasizes the relationship between different people’s life stories and how they connect. “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one” (John Berger). This quote is also related to the structure of the novel. In the Skin of a Lion is made up of three books separated into different parts. The ending is very satisfying as the last few pages tie together the whole collection with the preceding italicized text. It leaves readers with a new understanding of the narration.

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