Ondaatje’s Kaleidoscopic Landscape by Jesse Robinson

by capreviewroom

For readers immersing themselves in the dense landscape of In The Skin of a Lion, written by Michael Ondaatje, published in 1987, we are transported into a world where every movement and thought is calculated. Readers have also been moved by The English Patient, a novel crafted with gentle but persuasive feeling and intelligence, which succeeded In The Skin of a Lion by five years. We behold the lives of Patrick Lewis, Alice Gull, Clara Dickens, and Nicholas Temelcoff; each a stepping stone to, or from each other in an intertwining web of love, loss, and wonderment at the magic of life. Opening the novel with the first of three segments in an unconventional structure, set in the outskirts of Napanee, Ontario, we follow the path of endearingly guileless Patrick, with his effervescent childlike wonder. With a yearning to know his father’s life and talented hand at dynamiting, Patrick’s life becomes foreshadowed time and again with representations of feldspar-drawn upon many times within the next two segments-a metaphor for the paths Patrick will choose to travel throughout his adult years.

 I review with the assumption that the author has written this novel to more acutely pay homage to the hands that assisted in the creation of this great nation, as within its pages we are shown the true gust of love’s whirlwind, and the reflection of intimacy’s reach. First through the eyes of a child, traversing lessons learned through experience, sacrifices, and nearly imperceptible constant change through the eyes of the immigrants who are building cities’ bridges and foundational communities in the early 1900’s. Escaping a simply observant nature, we are plunged into a heartfelt fictional rendition of historical framework of true lives of invisible men and women who pour the hope, blood, sweat, and tears of their being into not only surviving, but flourishing. We discover Bloor Street Viaduct builder Nicholas Temelcoff; a true national character. Temelcoff is brought back to life, pulled at the strings that dangle from Ondaatje’s acknowledging words, tugged by his enchanting imagination, riddled with a kaleidoscope of truths.

 The lives of Patrick and Nicholas collide in ways that neither they, nor the reader, can fathom the instant they occur: both employed by projects developed by Rowland Harris, Commissioner of Public Works, both presented with interesting meetings with Alice Gull. Patrick sees her through love’s rose colored glasses, discovering her a theatrical chameleon after having suffered a terribly theatrical love lost himself with none other than Clara Dickens, one of Alice’s dear friends, and the mistress of infamous missing millionaire, Ambrose Small. Alice helps to support the ties that bind their worlds together, capturing the cast who prove to be more than lonely adjectives, encapsulated entirely by the unrestricted words of Ondaatje, “Only the best art can order the chaotic tumble of events. Only the best can realign chaos to suggest both the chaos and order it will become.” (p146) In The Skin of a Lion, with its brilliant use of metaphors and deep character separation and eventual amalgamation, is a novel that persuades with its narrative to help us achieve a new perspective on our nation’s history.


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