Michael Ondaatje is an award winning author and poet. Some of his great works include Anil’s Ghost, and The English Patient which was made into a motion picture. Living in Toronto inspired Ondaatje to write In The Skin Of A Lion, a novel based on mixed elements of fiction and non-fiction, during a time period in the early 1900’s in Ontario. He grasps your attention with colourful images of an era gone by; immigrants never making it in history. But in the pages of his novel, they become hero’s, lovers, builders, prisoners, thieves and murderers; never boring and never forgotten. He details their dreams with streams of poetic phrases and describes their encounters with flavour and meaning; their frivolous thoughts of love, their desire for mystery and their passion for revenge. They built Toronto’s landmarks and they wanted to be recognized.
The main character, Patrick Lewis is depicted from childhood as being a curios bystander visually absorbing his surroundings on an Ontario farm. He leaves at 21 for Toronto to pursue what he saw in his rural environment- new land. He attaches himself to the immigrant lifestyles that come his way, and becomes one of the working class. The characters in this novel are exquisitely described, simple people made to appear glamorous and many with hidden agendas which you may never discover. Patrick sensationalizes his interaction with these people who built the city, and at times it is difficult to determine reality from fiction but he always has a purpose throughout the novel, be it a dreamer, a leather tanner, a lover, a prisoner and even a father. One can empathize with Patrick as he is passionate and driven.
There are many other characters that jump in and out at different times in this book but somehow they all come together to give meaning to their presence-a thief that Patrick befriends, and adulterer that he falls in love with, and an actress that he marries. Ondaatje does justice to the lives of these immigrant characters by giving them not only purpose but hopes, dreams and resolution. He does an outstanding job of giving recognition to the many unnamed immigrants who contributed to the landmarks and making of Toronto.
In summary, In The Skin of A Lion reads like a fairytale with historic elements, but I found that there was no real plot. It was a recount of the creation of a new world with glorified events and deeply intriguing characters. This novel is a good reminder of how our lives are defined by the people in it, and their interactions and events shape our lives.