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In the Skin of a Lion

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Bristling with intelligence and shimmering with romance, this novel tests the boundary between history and myth. Patrick Lewis arrives in Toronto in the 1920s and earns his living searching for a vanished millionaire and tunneling beneath Lake Ontario. In the course of his adventures, Patrick's life intersects with those of characters who reappear in Ondaatje's Booker Priz Bristling with intelligence and shimmering with romance, this novel tests the boundary between history and myth. Patrick Lewis arrives in Toronto in the 1920s and earns his living searching for a vanished millionaire and tunneling beneath Lake Ontario. In the course of his adventures, Patrick's life intersects with those of characters who reappear in Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning The English Patient. 256 pp.


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Bristling with intelligence and shimmering with romance, this novel tests the boundary between history and myth. Patrick Lewis arrives in Toronto in the 1920s and earns his living searching for a vanished millionaire and tunneling beneath Lake Ontario. In the course of his adventures, Patrick's life intersects with those of characters who reappear in Ondaatje's Booker Priz Bristling with intelligence and shimmering with romance, this novel tests the boundary between history and myth. Patrick Lewis arrives in Toronto in the 1920s and earns his living searching for a vanished millionaire and tunneling beneath Lake Ontario. In the course of his adventures, Patrick's life intersects with those of characters who reappear in Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning The English Patient. 256 pp.

30 review for In the Skin of a Lion

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kara Babcock

    It’s never a good sign when the first thing you do after finishing a book is to go to its Wikipedia page and scrutinize the plot summary for some hint of what happened. For some reason, I always choose to read a complex or very “literary” type of novel on what turn out to be my busiest weeks. When I started In the Skin of a Lion, I was neck-deep in my unit planning for my English instruction course. (I developed a unit for Grade 9s studying A Wizard of Earthsea.) Even my impressive ability to fin It’s never a good sign when the first thing you do after finishing a book is to go to its Wikipedia page and scrutinize the plot summary for some hint of what happened. For some reason, I always choose to read a complex or very “literary” type of novel on what turn out to be my busiest weeks. When I started In the Skin of a Lion, I was neck-deep in my unit planning for my English instruction course. (I developed a unit for Grade 9s studying A Wizard of Earthsea.) Even my impressive ability to find time to read was put to the test, and it didn’t help that Michael Ondaatje’s prose and narrative are both incredibly stylized and poetic. I’m starting to develop a guilty conscience for not liking books like this more, because there is nothing wrong with being stylized or poetic, so I can understand why Ondaatje’s writing appeals to some people. But my mood and the timing were such that my heart just wasn’t invested in this book, and that makes it very difficult for me to separate my apathy toward the act of reading it with any apathy I might feel as a result of the story itself. I just didn’t pay attention to what was going on in this book. The narrative mostly follows one character, Patrick Lewis, son of an explosives expert. It jumps sometimes to a few other characters, such as Nicolas Temelcoff, with all of these characters related to Patrick’s narrative in some way. Ondaatje portrays the poor-to-abysmal quality of life of the lower class that laboured to construct some of Toronto’s greatest early twentieth-century achievements in city infrastructure. In the Skin of a Lion is a novel of blood, sweat, and tears of the immigrants who helped build one of the hubs of our nation. It’s ambitious, and in some sense I would agree that Ondaatje realizes his ambition. Alas, I couldn’t quite stay along for the ride. Ondaatje plays fast and loose with flashbacks, and maybe this says something about my limitations as a reader, but I prefer a straightforward internal chronology. It would have helped if there were a single character to anchor me to the narrative, but they all feel interchangeable, even Patrick. There is no protagonist because there is no conflict, just the faceless shuffle against the background the inequity of life. Patrick seems to do things, once in a while, including some fairly risky actions with explosives, but I was too disengaged to be able to speak intelligently about why he might have done this. The back cover bills this as a love story. A love story between whom? Patrick and Clara? Patrick and Alice? People and Toronto? There are times when it feels like one or all three of these … but those times are difficult to distinguish from each other. There is just an oppressive sense of bland sameness to every chapter of this novel such that even though I’m sure things happened, it never felt like they were happening. The present tense submerged the plot and did not let go until all its limbs had quite thrashing and, finally, went limp. And I never quite understood Patrick’s motivation—why was he so interested in digging into everyone’s past? I am dissatisfied not with the book but with me. In my review of Napier’s Bones I talk about letting a book down, and now that sentiment has returned. It’s not a case of a book failing to live up to its hype; rather, I feel unable to judge effectively whether it did or didn’t do that. When I dislike a book, I want to be able to present cogent reasons why. I hate feeling like one of those people who just completely missed the point of the exercise. Yet the prospect of re-reading this book when my mind is less taxed does not particularly excite me. Such is the ultimate refuge of subjectivity, I suppose: we readers are humans, not book-devouring robots. (I know, I know, hard to believe!) We have moods and phases, and sometimes a perfect storm of time and tasks and not-the-right-book combine to throw us off our groove. I can neither recommend this book nor caution others against it. It’s definitely beautiful, in its own way, and I can see why it has attracted acclaim. But it is not universally accessible: it demands a certain amount of stillness, to channel Yann Martel for a moment, that I couldn’t quite provide this time around. I have another Ondaatje kicking around somewhere. Maybe the second book will be easier than the first. But that is for another week.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Marcelo

    Astounding. One of the best novels I've ever read. Ondaatje does things with language that should be almost illegal, giving us scenes that can be at the same time lush and heartbreakingly stark, weaving in and out of different timeframes and contexts with the fluidity and free association of memory. His depictions of the hard work these characters undertake in early 20th Century Canada (bridge building, logging, tunnel drilling under Lake Ontario in order to build a water purification plant) hav Astounding. One of the best novels I've ever read. Ondaatje does things with language that should be almost illegal, giving us scenes that can be at the same time lush and heartbreakingly stark, weaving in and out of different timeframes and contexts with the fluidity and free association of memory. His depictions of the hard work these characters undertake in early 20th Century Canada (bridge building, logging, tunnel drilling under Lake Ontario in order to build a water purification plant) have a scale, a daring and a sense of the concrete and muscular that are beyond compare. And in between all of this, he gives us a sweet and sad story of immigrants, torn between destitution and the promise of the New World, between loves past and loves present, between rich and poor, that are vivid, precise, lived-in. You will remember many scenes in this book for weeks - the nuns being tossed around by the wind on an unfinished bridge, a daring escape from prison, a confrontation (ending in a molotov cocktail) between a rich man who wants to disappear and the searcher that is looking for him to retrieve the woman he loves, and a final denouement at the Palace of Purification that is at the same time sad, thrilling and reaffirming of the basic decency of a human being. Superb.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Chrissie

    The writing, the manner by which the author has woven fact into a fictional tale and the book’s central message explain why I like this book as much as I do. We are given a story that is carefully planned and well executed. Every detail is there for a purpose. Even section titles have been carefully considered. The “finished product” is very good. We are told at the start that every novel should begin with the line: “Trust me, this will take time, but there is order here, very faint, very human. The writing, the manner by which the author has woven fact into a fictional tale and the book’s central message explain why I like this book as much as I do. We are given a story that is carefully planned and well executed. Every detail is there for a purpose. Even section titles have been carefully considered. The “finished product” is very good. We are told at the start that every novel should begin with the line: “Trust me, this will take time, but there is order here, very faint, very human.” Not every novel can successfully fulfill such a promise. This one does. The writing alone is worth four stars. Ondaatje draws scenes that readers will not forget. One that stands out for me are skaters, on a creek, in the dark of night, each holding a sheaf of blazing cats’ tails before them. These skaters we lean later to be Finnish immigrants. Two women playfully, and lovingly, wrestling together is another scene I will not forget. Sexual encounters are drawn with the brush of an artist. The scenes are not only beautifully drawn, but they also tie well into the tale. They are both beautiful and important. This is a book of historical fiction, its purpose being to draw attention to immigrant labor in the Americas, a group of people whose work should be applauded and given the recognition they merit. Without them our cities would not be what they are today. History often fails to give immigrants the merit they are due. The novel looks at Toronto in the beginning of the 20th century--the building of the Prince Edward Viaduct and the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant by immigrant labor with poor pay and working conditions. Little or no concern is taken in regards to their living quarters. The Prince Edward Viaduct is also known as the Bloor Viaduct. Who were these men and women who built our cities? What were their lives like? It is this that is the central theme of the book. True facts are seamlessly woven into the fictional tale. They do not stick out. They are not excessive. They do not smother the story. We learn of R.C. Harris, the bridge’s designer and commissioner of public works in Toronto at this time. The viaduct was to be a double-decked truss arched bridge, carrying water, electricity and traffic and linking eastern Toronto with the city center. As readers, we are there in the construction of the bridge, alongside immigrant labor. We learn of events that were in the news while the bridge was being built—the fall of a nun from the as yet incomplete bridge, the disappearance of Ambrose Small (a bigwig theater owner), labor union meetings and the murder of labor union activists. Ondaatje spent months studying the City of Toronto archives and newspapers. He has taken the known and the unknown and woven the two into a fictional tale. It is up to the reader to search the net to discover what has been stretched. The story is so convincingly written that originally, I thought that all was absolutely true. The English Patient came out before In the Skin of a Lion. The latter may be considered a prequel to the former. I would recommend reading In the Skin of a Lion first. In it we learn about the two characters Hana and Caravaggio. Both turn up again in The English Patient. I think I would have found them more interesting had I known of their earlier experiences. The audiobook is narrated by Tom McCamus. I have given the narration performance four stars. It is clear and easy to follow, but different intonations are not used for different characters. You must listen to the words for an indication of who is talking. You cannot even hear if the person peaking is male or female; women and men sound the same. This was of little importance to me, but others may object. Ondaatje draws a tale that has captivated me. It does demand attention. The reader follows different characters and there are time shifts, but one’s efforts are rewarded. This is a fine tale; one that I thoroughly enjoyed. The writing is splendid. Books I have read by Michael Ondaatje: In the Skin of a Lion 4 stars The English Patient 4 stars Anil's Ghost 4 stars Running in the Family 3 stars Divisadero 3 sars Warlight TBR

  4. 4 out of 5

    Maciek

    In the Skin of a Lion is a hazy, dreamlike novel, which transports its readers to the city of Toronto in the early 20th century. This is the time when countless immigrants came to the city - escaping misery, wars and poverty that was their daily life in the Old World. The glimmering lights of the New World shore brightly across the ocean, and they journeyed across it for weeks, seduced by their promises of a new and better life. These masses of immigrants - often poor and uneducated - built, for In the Skin of a Lion is a hazy, dreamlike novel, which transports its readers to the city of Toronto in the early 20th century. This is the time when countless immigrants came to the city - escaping misery, wars and poverty that was their daily life in the Old World. The glimmering lights of the New World shore brightly across the ocean, and they journeyed across it for weeks, seduced by their promises of a new and better life. These masses of immigrants - often poor and uneducated - built, formed and shaped the city into a vibrant multicultural metropolis that it is now. They had only their hopes and dreams, but they also had the will and strength to make them real. The hard labor of these men and women is directly responsible for the creation of countries that have since developed and prospered, but the very people who made them are mostly unmentioned and forgotten by history. Ondaatje's novel is fiction, but filled with real events which took place in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada during that time: the construction of the Prince Edward Viaduct between Bloor Street and Danforth Avenue; suppression of workers strikes and demonstrations by the police chief Dennis Draper; the murders of Viljo Rosvall and Janne Voutilainen, two Finnish-Canadian labor unionists, and the mysterious disappearance of Ambrose Smalls - a famous theare magnate who owned several venues across Ontario, and whose disappearance was never solved (even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was involved in it at one time, but ultimately chose not to pursue the case). Oondaatje apparently spent months in the City of Toronto archives to research material for the novel - and the best part is that a lot of material has been digitized and can be accessed online here, allowing us to see Toronto's history for ourselves - including the earliest known photographs of the city. Ondaatje introduces several characters, some of which will appear again in his later novel, The English Patient. Sometimes their stories touch and correlate and sometimes they don't, dissolving like wisps of spider silk in the early morning sunlight. I suspect that years from now it will be difficult for me to remember the details of the novel, but what will stay with me are the images Ondaatje manages to conjure swiftly and without any real effort: a group of Scandinavian immigrants skating across a frozen river in a small town in Northern Ontario, defying its wilderness and iciness; wind throwing off a nun from an unfinished bridge, and a brave builder who risks his life to save her; a man escaping from prison and into the country, staying by himself in remote lakeside houses, the silence and vastness of the area having an almost preternatural quality. Is this how pioneers felt? Like many immigrants the novel searches for its own goal but doesn't find it, leaving us with a collection of brief insights into the lives of its characters and surrounding. Still, Ondaatje in places writers well enough to warrant an extra star, and I look forward to reading more of his work.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Fabian

    Best piece of fiction I've read this (crappy?) year (2020). The primary feeling this novel inspires is: Love isn't the most important thing in the world. The complexities of LIFE are more profound, sad, and... satisfying. This may be a revolutionary statement, a great hypothesis, and the novel is magic. It has so much action and so much poetry: far-flung lovers (not an Ever After, but a Right Now [Since we are human, Connection is SO IMPORTANT! ...and we all get forgotten if not for history]); wa Best piece of fiction I've read this (crappy?) year (2020). The primary feeling this novel inspires is: Love isn't the most important thing in the world. The complexities of LIFE are more profound, sad, and... satisfying. This may be a revolutionary statement, a great hypothesis, and the novel is magic. It has so much action and so much poetry: far-flung lovers (not an Ever After, but a Right Now [Since we are human, Connection is SO IMPORTANT! ...and we all get forgotten if not for history]); water tunnel explosions! human puppets on stage! nuns that jump from bridges! A prison escape in guise of a heavenly blue!; a live-or-die logging company...in Canada! In craft, the novel is like something out of PUIG (yes, Ill even mention the exact novel: Heartbreak Tango) in that it contains the poet's roving eye which captures a very democratic world for the protagonists (almost always a man and two women who inherently captivate him) in that the moment in history is finite, and so all people are worthy of having their stories told. Mr. Ondaatje is nothing if not a master storyteller. He is elemental, like Graham Greene, and speaks of action with such a precise use of his poetics (The English Patient is--gasp--a smaller pleasure, than this!) like a classic writer, a Joseph Conrad that extends his narrative in vast, electrifying always surprising ways! A must!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Teresa

    A book full of sights and more, signifying much, including, and in a big way, one of my favorite themes -- that of the 'little' people, the ones 'behind the scenes' of history, the ones we'll never know. After reading this book, I feel like I've been to Ontario and in particular Toronto during the early-20th century. Toronto is a teeming, vibrant multicultural community, so much so that the main character from backwoods Ontario feels like the outsider. Though to be completely accurate, he probabl A book full of sights and more, signifying much, including, and in a big way, one of my favorite themes -- that of the 'little' people, the ones 'behind the scenes' of history, the ones we'll never know. After reading this book, I feel like I've been to Ontario and in particular Toronto during the early-20th century. Toronto is a teeming, vibrant multicultural community, so much so that the main character from backwoods Ontario feels like the outsider. Though to be completely accurate, he probably would've felt like an outsider no matter where he ended up, such was his upbringing and outlook. Be patient with this book if the beginning seems a bit slow or meandering. You will be hugely rewarded. As one of the quotes I've marked from this says: The first sentence of every novel should be: "Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human." Meander if you want to get to town. And as I neared the end and realized where we were headed, I also realized I'd forgotten where we started, because in between -- how we get from the beginning to the end -- is a dazzling feast, and feat.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Alison

    There is a scene, in the very beginning of this book, during which Patrick Lewis, primary voice among the the half-dozen or so protagonists, watches Scandinavian men skate home over a frozen river on a dark winter's night in Northern Ontario, carrying handfuls of burning cattails over their heads. Ondaatje, who is the rare poet capable of writing great fiction, describes the scene thusly: "It was not just the pleasure of skating. They could have done that during the day. This was against the nig There is a scene, in the very beginning of this book, during which Patrick Lewis, primary voice among the the half-dozen or so protagonists, watches Scandinavian men skate home over a frozen river on a dark winter's night in Northern Ontario, carrying handfuls of burning cattails over their heads. Ondaatje, who is the rare poet capable of writing great fiction, describes the scene thusly: "It was not just the pleasure of skating. They could have done that during the day. This was against the night. The hard ice was so certain, they could leap into the air and crash down and it would hold them. their lanterns replaces with new rushes which let them go further past boundaries, speed! romance! one man waltzing with his fire. . . ." And thus it begins. Dancing with the elements. A wind catching the skirts of a young nun and sending her spinning out into the air and into the arms of a daredevil bridge builder. Great explosions underwater and on land. Escape through water and betrayal by it. So much of this book exists on the perilous edge between something fear and whimsy. I've certainly never found any other book in which the acts of destruction felt so balletic. Nuns,actresses, missing millionaires, orphan girls, burglars, radicals, immigrants and great marvels of engineering. For a slim book that often reads like poetry, there's an awful lot going on here. You hardly know where to look. And it is absolutely exquisite.

  8. 5 out of 5

    ·Karen·

    A full five star endorsement for a novel that has a mesmeric, hallucinatory quality. Images as powerful and poignant as a dream, narrative that slips and weaves and ducks between people, places and time, and an impressive sweep of invention that catches the breath. Ondaatje uncovers the story of those whose labour created Toronto landmarks in the early twentieth century, deftly knitting up truth and myth, revealing the lives of those who were forgotten in the official version of history. Actuall A full five star endorsement for a novel that has a mesmeric, hallucinatory quality. Images as powerful and poignant as a dream, narrative that slips and weaves and ducks between people, places and time, and an impressive sweep of invention that catches the breath. Ondaatje uncovers the story of those whose labour created Toronto landmarks in the early twentieth century, deftly knitting up truth and myth, revealing the lives of those who were forgotten in the official version of history. Actually, The English Patient is one of the few books in my reading life that I never finished. I don't think I ever really took note of the book until the film came out, so it must have been 1996, when we had just moved back to Germany from Austria, because I have a clear memory of trying to read it in bed on a mattress on the floor. With moving and coping with all that entails, I know I was only reading a few pages in bed at night before falling into a coma. After three weeks of this where it seemed to me that nothing whatever had happened, I gave up. I was amazed at how political In the Skin of a Lion is, I had Ondaatje down in my mind as a somewhat artsy poetic type that uses a lot of words to skirt the ineffable. How wrong I was.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kaelee

    Honestly, I utterly despised this book. I had no end of people telling me that this was one of the most divine, perfectly written books EVER. What I saw when I read it was literary masturbation. I'll concede Ondaatje has an elegant way of stringing together lots of beautiful words and phrases and moments, but I don't think that that alone can make a book. Others have said they think the characters in this are so real as to make you utterly devoted to them. I struggled to sympathise with a single Honestly, I utterly despised this book. I had no end of people telling me that this was one of the most divine, perfectly written books EVER. What I saw when I read it was literary masturbation. I'll concede Ondaatje has an elegant way of stringing together lots of beautiful words and phrases and moments, but I don't think that that alone can make a book. Others have said they think the characters in this are so real as to make you utterly devoted to them. I struggled to sympathise with a single one. This felt to me like Ondaatje had a lot of beautiful images in his head that he wanted to string together, but had no cohesive, workable story, so instead, he opted for the pastiche of past and present, from the perspectives of a dozen different people, so he could get them out but hide the fact that the story was weak.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Deanna

    There were lots of levels of experiencing this novel. It was a hypnotic and powerful read by a wonderfully talented writer. That felt like 4 stars. While it never ever feels like you’re reading description, at every moment you are not just immersed in but almost physically in a vigorous sensory experience of immediate place and physical experience. However, the characters felt less like full characters and more like holders of a point to make. And the plot unevenly held my interest. None of it a There were lots of levels of experiencing this novel. It was a hypnotic and powerful read by a wonderfully talented writer. That felt like 4 stars. While it never ever feels like you’re reading description, at every moment you are not just immersed in but almost physically in a vigorous sensory experience of immediate place and physical experience. However, the characters felt less like full characters and more like holders of a point to make. And the plot unevenly held my interest. None of it appealed to me by description, but I was rapt in long sections. I did tire of several things, though: the lengthy back and forth and extreme scenarios of an obsessive infatuation, the cat and mouse of the rich and famous guy and the tortured soul guy, and finally the pretty extreme physical beating almost every male body takes, multiple times and for multiple reasons, with a look-how-tough and walk-it-off result most of the time. That’s a lot of issues written down against short praise, but the experience of this writing, the Canadian setting, and sections of the book where I really did care about characters and what happened mean this is actually a strong 4 stars for me. Earlier this year I picked up his Warlight in an airport, got about halfway through it during the trip, and then lost track of the book. I was enjoying it and it comes back to me and I miss the story. The book will show up or I’ll get another one.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Laure

    Despite the poetic language, this was quite a quick read. I will re read it again though as the language is complex and there are things that still do not make totally sense in my head. This is will not be a chore as the language is beautiful and eminently evocative. I wish the plot and characters' motivation had not been so difficult to fathom at times, lost is some land of magical realism. Great book still. Despite the poetic language, this was quite a quick read. I will re read it again though as the language is complex and there are things that still do not make totally sense in my head. This is will not be a chore as the language is beautiful and eminently evocative. I wish the plot and characters' motivation had not been so difficult to fathom at times, lost is some land of magical realism. Great book still.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Katie Lumsden

    This one wasn't really for me - it was a little too literary and meandering for my taste. This one wasn't really for me - it was a little too literary and meandering for my taste.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Czarny Pies

    As a parent with two sons who loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (i.e. Michelangelo, Rafael, Donatello and Leonardo) when they were children in the 1990s, I was delighted to discover that the fifth turtle Caravaggio was a character of “In the Skin of a Lion”. In most cases, however, the surprises in this novel dismayed me. One of the major themes of “In the Skin of Lion” is to portray Toronto’s ethnic minorities during the first four decades of the twentieth century when in the view of Ondaa As a parent with two sons who loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (i.e. Michelangelo, Rafael, Donatello and Leonardo) when they were children in the 1990s, I was delighted to discover that the fifth turtle Caravaggio was a character of “In the Skin of a Lion”. In most cases, however, the surprises in this novel dismayed me. One of the major themes of “In the Skin of Lion” is to portray Toronto’s ethnic minorities during the first four decades of the twentieth century when in the view of Ondaatje, they were culturally alienated and economically alienated. Although Ondaatje is a at least partially correct, his lack of contact with the ethnic groups that he assigns his characters to thoroughly undermines his endeavour. Ondaatje is an arch wasp which is not necessarily a bad thing. It is a label that could be applied to half of my family. However, if one is to write about non-Wasps one needs some familiarity with them. Mere commiseration which is all that Ondaatje has is not enough. Ultimately Caravaggio, especially in his second avatar in “The English Patient” is a Wasp. I also fond the nominally Macedonian Temelcoff to be very much an Anglo. “In the Skin of Lion” nonetheless has its charms. Ondaatje fares much better with his Wasp characters. As in other novels, Ondaatje presents an intriguing set of characters who fight the good fight of life and arouse our sympathy when they are inevitably crushed by harshness of this cruel world. Patrick Lewis, the protagonist and professional dynamiter loves passionately but all his loves are unrequited. Finally, I must note that "In the Skin of a Lion" introduces Hana who will be the leading character of "The English Patient" and for this reason alone is worth reading.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Marie

    In the middle of this novel, Ondaatje writes: "The first sentence of every novel should be: "Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.'" And this seems to be Ondaatje's philosophy about his novels. I read this book because we are headed to Toronto at the end of August, and this was described to me as the "quintessential Toronto novel." However, I found myself scanning pages and anxiously hoping that I would get to the end. Not signs of a good novel for me! Some In the middle of this novel, Ondaatje writes: "The first sentence of every novel should be: "Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.'" And this seems to be Ondaatje's philosophy about his novels. I read this book because we are headed to Toronto at the end of August, and this was described to me as the "quintessential Toronto novel." However, I found myself scanning pages and anxiously hoping that I would get to the end. Not signs of a good novel for me! Some passages I found intriguing--notably the ones about the workers building the viaduct, tunneling under Lake Ontario, and laboring in the tannery--Ondaatje has a knack for describing the dirtiest and most dangerous sorts of work and helping the reader understand what it is like. Ondaatje is a poet, and some of his writing I found beautiful. He had a few strong female characters in the story too. I have a certain amount of tolerance for novelists flitting from one character's perspective to another, or one point of time to another. But this book made me dizzy. I was hoping that I would have a better understanding at the end of how it all fit together. Many goodreads reviewers describe this book as one of their favorites. It's very arty and avant garde: not really my cup of tea, I suppose.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Adam

    Ondaatje. I understand why people like at least some of his work. I understand why his prose is appealing, though it's the sort of thing nobody can do without occasionally seeming laughable (not even Virginia Woolf). I sort of get the appeal. But I'm really sick of IMPORTANT LITERARY FICTION in Canada and really, really sick of IMPORTANT LITERARY FICTION's dominance of the Canadian literary scene. This trend seems to really have kicked off with Ondaatje's GGA win for The English Patient. Before Ondaatje. I understand why people like at least some of his work. I understand why his prose is appealing, though it's the sort of thing nobody can do without occasionally seeming laughable (not even Virginia Woolf). I sort of get the appeal. But I'm really sick of IMPORTANT LITERARY FICTION in Canada and really, really sick of IMPORTANT LITERARY FICTION's dominance of the Canadian literary scene. This trend seems to really have kicked off with Ondaatje's GGA win for The English Patient. Before then, you had books and people winning these literary awards that weren't so self-serious and stuffy and IMPORTANT LITERARY FICTION-y. Stuff like Guy Vanderhaeghe's brilliant short story collection Man Descending (he would win again, post-English Patient, but for The Englishman's Boy, which is IMPORTANT LITERARY FICTION, and exceedingly so), Robert Kroetsch's The Studhorse Man, and a number of other writers like Richler, Wiebe, Robertson Davies etc. who all wrote very good literary fiction without being insufferably self-important and serious. It's not that this book is bad. It's alright. Occasionally, it's even great, but only occasionally. It just irks me, and a lot of fellow young Canadian readers I know I can speak for, that this kind of thing gets all the attention.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Andy

    The best book I've read in 5 years. But everyone I recommend it to hates it. The prose is poetry, and the genetic connection to Ondaatje's earlier prose-poem works like "Coming through Slaughter" is obvious. But the power of this book resides in his characterization - you come to be absolutely devoted to the individuals - and I choose that word deliberately - that populate this novel. Though sparingly described, they seem more familiar than the characters so exhaustively cataloged in much pomo f The best book I've read in 5 years. But everyone I recommend it to hates it. The prose is poetry, and the genetic connection to Ondaatje's earlier prose-poem works like "Coming through Slaughter" is obvious. But the power of this book resides in his characterization - you come to be absolutely devoted to the individuals - and I choose that word deliberately - that populate this novel. Though sparingly described, they seem more familiar than the characters so exhaustively cataloged in much pomo fiction. Ondaatje's genius is in the scenes he puts before us, which are almost emblematic of the character's personalities and values. I dare anyone to forget the beauty of the scene when Caravaggio escapes from prison. Simultaneously a careful character study and a novel of ideas. Ondaatje's best, by far.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Moses Kilolo

    I got through the first fifty or so pages solely because of the poetic language of this book. Otherwise I would have meandered my way, got lost somewhere, looked around for help, and finding none, tossed the book away. I am not a big fan of so many characters, so many voices, and so much happening in a book. But with this one I remained patient. And lord I'm I not grateful. It seems that I have been richly rewarded. This is book is set in Toronto in the '30s. And except for Patrick, the main prot I got through the first fifty or so pages solely because of the poetic language of this book. Otherwise I would have meandered my way, got lost somewhere, looked around for help, and finding none, tossed the book away. I am not a big fan of so many characters, so many voices, and so much happening in a book. But with this one I remained patient. And lord I'm I not grateful. It seems that I have been richly rewarded. This is book is set in Toronto in the '30s. And except for Patrick, the main protagonist, the other dominant characters are mostly immigrants, whose lives and toils are described with painstaking detail, but still subtly sensual. In fact, Patrick ends up feeling like the outsider in a cast of men and women that are ready to make it by whatever means; in a masculine new world that is neither merciful nor apologetic. Which brings us to the dominant theme. History. And the place of the seemingly insignificant. Ondaatje makes us care for what part that these small people, those who build the cities with their ill remunerated labor, and lost their lives in the course, played in making this history. It is a book with many pleasures, romantic and poetic in part, and greatly rewarding for anyone who wishes to read some thought provoking stuff. Dig in, with patient and assurance that you'll be rewarded in the end.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Stephen P(who no longer can participate due to illness)

    An exalted language rendered simply. Ondaatje lays down on a wood grained table, an axe, fallen trees, a log jamb, explosives, the building of a bridge and a waterworks. The concrete tools of realism. As he speaks in his mesmerizing words his agile hands tent and curl, through the fingers arise images of a hallucinogenic prose. In short declarative sentences he calls forth the onset of a first LSD trip; the shock of boundaries melting away, the particles of the world slowed and oozing with meani An exalted language rendered simply. Ondaatje lays down on a wood grained table, an axe, fallen trees, a log jamb, explosives, the building of a bridge and a waterworks. The concrete tools of realism. As he speaks in his mesmerizing words his agile hands tent and curl, through the fingers arise images of a hallucinogenic prose. In short declarative sentences he calls forth the onset of a first LSD trip; the shock of boundaries melting away, the particles of the world slowed and oozing with meaning. Ondaatje is clearly someone who can create a burning solvent in a lab that steams words beyond their summit of representation and into the scalding approach of what is real.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Mattia Ravasi

    This 'humble epic' about Canada's working class in the early twentieth century is a memento to their sacrifices and to the injustice of their condition, a book made so much better by its lack of political extremism and by its dry, solemn prose; and it is also a wonderful and heartbreaking love novel. This 'humble epic' about Canada's working class in the early twentieth century is a memento to their sacrifices and to the injustice of their condition, a book made so much better by its lack of political extremism and by its dry, solemn prose; and it is also a wonderful and heartbreaking love novel.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Will Ansbacher

    Probably one of the best novels I ever read, better even than "The English Patient". Time to read it again. Probably one of the best novels I ever read, better even than "The English Patient". Time to read it again.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Michael Livingston

    A glorious, powerful, mesmerising book. The writing is exquisite at a sentence level, and Ondaatje somehow writes both a rich history of working class Toronto and an almost-biblical tale of fate, love and revenge.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Iida

    This novel is the reason novels need to be written. Ondaatje is always a stunning writer, his prose brushing up against poetry in the very best of ways, but In the Skin of a Lion rivals The English Patient with its imagery. I re-read this novel about once a year, and every time the first cracking of the spine is an almost spiritual experience. Ondaatje is a rare writer of historical fiction in that his background knowledge is clearly immense, but he doesn't feel the need to lay it all out in the This novel is the reason novels need to be written. Ondaatje is always a stunning writer, his prose brushing up against poetry in the very best of ways, but In the Skin of a Lion rivals The English Patient with its imagery. I re-read this novel about once a year, and every time the first cracking of the spine is an almost spiritual experience. Ondaatje is a rare writer of historical fiction in that his background knowledge is clearly immense, but he doesn't feel the need to lay it all out in the open. There is great attention to detail here, especially when it comes to the construction of bridges and tunnels, but it is beautifully written and wildly realistic. For a novel so deeply rooted in fact, this is a fantastical endeavour. As with The English Patient, Ondaatje flings improbable combinations of people in improbable circumstances into a world that is so richly researched, it feels surreal. It's not just beautiful imagery and historical accuracy. There are surprises in his writing; two years can pass in a paragraph, a man can go from perfect peace to being literally set on fire, a nun can be saved from certain death, and during the space of hours, she can cut her habit with a pair of shears and leave behind the life she'd known. This is a political novel that encompasses the frenetic construction of Toronto, the harsh winters and glorious summers of the Ontario countryside, the universal struggles of immigrants in a new world; above all it is 200 pages of absolutely sublime writing that somehow captures the pace and the thrill of pivotal moments both in history and in our lives. This is a novel that needs to be sunk into, slowly and with patience. It is possibly one of the most rewarding books I've ever read.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Ova - Excuse My Reading

    Ondaatje is so talented. This is a slow, stunning read. I was lucky to read a good Turkish translation but would very much love to read the original again.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Shauna Hruby

    There were moments of beauty and visual acuity, but more often there were moments of muddlesome bemusement. Story arcs left hanging, dangling tantalizingly (a nun falling off a bridge to be caught in mid-air, but then what...?)--abandoned, but returned to eventually. Satisfying and unsatisfying at the same time. There is a quote in the book that seems to sum up my feelings of this book: "Only the best art can order the chaotic tumble of events. Only the best can realign chaos to suggest both the There were moments of beauty and visual acuity, but more often there were moments of muddlesome bemusement. Story arcs left hanging, dangling tantalizingly (a nun falling off a bridge to be caught in mid-air, but then what...?)--abandoned, but returned to eventually. Satisfying and unsatisfying at the same time. There is a quote in the book that seems to sum up my feelings of this book: "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. Within two years of 1066, work began on the Bayeux Tapestry, Constantin the African brought Greek medicine to the western world. The chaos and tumble of events. The first sentence of every novel should be: 'Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.' Meander if you want to get to town." This book is a chaotic tumble of events, and the author tries to be the "best art" bringing order to it all, but I'm not sure if it works entirely for me. Though there are moments....

  25. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    First things first: I do not think Michael Ondaatje gets enough credit. I know that he wrote "The English Patient," which became an epic romantic film with Ralph Fiennes. But not only is "The English Patient" a wonderful book, but ALL of his books are beautiful. "In the Skin of a Lion" may be my favorite. I have a great love affair with Ondaatje's prose, which gently lilts and probes and carefully illuminates the most telling truths about his characters. There are very few other writers whose wor First things first: I do not think Michael Ondaatje gets enough credit. I know that he wrote "The English Patient," which became an epic romantic film with Ralph Fiennes. But not only is "The English Patient" a wonderful book, but ALL of his books are beautiful. "In the Skin of a Lion" may be my favorite. I have a great love affair with Ondaatje's prose, which gently lilts and probes and carefully illuminates the most telling truths about his characters. There are very few other writers whose work I find so intuitive and organic. He makes even the most absurd things beautiful (e.g. pouring milk all over someone's arm, mouth-to-mouth semen exchange). This is the novel that made me fall in love with Ondaatje's writing. I love the sense of awe and mystery, of being on the outside, of making discoveries. Epic romantic films with Ralph Fiennes aside, Ondaatje's writing is top notch, and it doesn't get better than this one.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    In this book, Patrick Lewis describes the lives of the people who surround him in Toronto in the 1920s. Patrick begins to learn, from their stories, the history of the city itself.

  27. 5 out of 5

    graycastle

    This is my favourite of Ondaatje's novels, and I am quite the Ondaatje fan, so. This is pomo in ways that are by now familiar: interested in collage-style historical documentation, nonlinear, imagistic, in opposition to grand narratives, obsessed with artistic creation, etc. And I love that stuff, because it is awesome. But what really makes this work is Ondaatje's prose, which is lush and visceral and delicious - he invests all of his characters with a specific kind of depth resultant from the This is my favourite of Ondaatje's novels, and I am quite the Ondaatje fan, so. This is pomo in ways that are by now familiar: interested in collage-style historical documentation, nonlinear, imagistic, in opposition to grand narratives, obsessed with artistic creation, etc. And I love that stuff, because it is awesome. But what really makes this work is Ondaatje's prose, which is lush and visceral and delicious - he invests all of his characters with a specific kind of depth resultant from the lingering way he lets the narrative dwell upon them. I can't do it justice, really; you just have to read it. A long-time favourite.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Charles

    The prose was fluid and poetic. The narrative was non-linear, but ultimately disappointing, disjointed, and dispasionate. The characters were poorly developed, cool, distant, and obscure; and, thus, too, I found their relationships undeveloped and somewhat random. Who was coupling with whom? And why? Ultimately, the prose was sizzle without steak, a beautiful box without jewels, a floral preamble without body.

  29. 5 out of 5

    ♛ may

    If you were to ask me what this book was about, I wouldn't be able to answer you. Literally, 90% of this book didn't make sense to me. Fortunately, (or maybe unfortunately) I'm not obliged to write a review about it since I only read it for school. - I would have DNFed it ages ago if I could. :p Kay, byeeeee. 2 stars! If you were to ask me what this book was about, I wouldn't be able to answer you. Literally, 90% of this book didn't make sense to me. Fortunately, (or maybe unfortunately) I'm not obliged to write a review about it since I only read it for school. - I would have DNFed it ages ago if I could. :p Kay, byeeeee. 2 stars!

  30. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    I'm currently rereading this small novel which I think is a masterpiece of restrained and beautiful writing. Ondaatje can infuse eroticism into the struggles of the working class--in the 1920s in this novel. He introduces the characters here that will reappear in The English Patient. It is about so many things: how immigrants cope with a new land, how they learn the language of that land (hilariously by listening to Fats Waller songs in addition to going to plays and memorizing the lines along w I'm currently rereading this small novel which I think is a masterpiece of restrained and beautiful writing. Ondaatje can infuse eroticism into the struggles of the working class--in the 1920s in this novel. He introduces the characters here that will reappear in The English Patient. It is about so many things: how immigrants cope with a new land, how they learn the language of that land (hilariously by listening to Fats Waller songs in addition to going to plays and memorizing the lines along with the actors.) How they find beauty in hardship and how they revolt against poor working conditions and prejudice. HIs characters accept that life is difficult but when the gulf is so wide between the rich and poor, he also portrays their realization that fighting back against oppression, is the only way to gain voice in this historical context.

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