Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion is a fictionalized account of life in Toronto during the 1920‘s, seen through the eyes of Patrick Lewis, a former logger who comes to the city searching for Ambrose Small, a millionaire theatre magnate who has vanished. During his search, he falls madly in love with Small’s mistress, Clara Dickens, and meets her friend, Alice Gull. Years later, Patrick returns to Toronto without Clara, where he finds work, friendship and a new lover among the city’s new working class, mainly non English speaking immigrants from Macedonia and other Eastern European countries.
The novel is an in depth, imagined look at the people who helped build Toronto into the mega city it is today. Several of the characters portrayed in the novel are based on real people who greatly influenced the creation of Toronto, but as a reader we feel that everyone could have been a real people: they have flaws, long complex histories and relationships, and all of them deal with love in various ways, like all real human beings do. Ondaatje’s characters are so incredibly brought to life that we lose ourselves in the story and forget that these are made up individuals and that their lives are therefore make believe. Love and the complexity of relationships between lovers and friends is a common theme of In the Skin of a Lion.
“He had always wanted to know her when she was old.”
This quote is thought by Patrick Lewis, and it shows how truly deep and profound his love was for the woman in his life. His dream of a perfect life was destroyed, and the man he becomes after he loses her is nothing like the man he was when this woman was in his life. For it is love, or the lack of it, that drives and defines Patrick. Without the love of this woman, he is a fragile shell of his former self. Events will always happen that we can not control, and it is how we react to those events that create who we are. Seemingly innocent and random events have great impact on the lives of the people of In the Skin of a Lion. And like in real life, the line separating love from lust is constantly blurred in this story.
Michael Ondaatje has created a beautiful story showing the lives, loves and relationships of some of the thousands of people who helped create Canada’s most populous city. He reminds us that love and our relationships with the people in our lives have profound impacts on who we are and what we do, whether they be for better or for worse.