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on February 11, 2001
In 1987, Ondaatje wrote his chef d'ouevre, In the Skin of a Lion, which combines the best of his previous prose, poetry, and recent autobiography. Here one will see fictional characters come to believable life, prose more sonorous than most poetry of the day, and learn more about the history and politics of Canada than one does at school (unless, of course, one is lucky enough to be Canadian.) Many feel (and I believe rightly so) that this is the book that should have won the prestigious Booker Prize--an honor later given to 1992's The English Patient. Certainly, this is the book that helped give birth to the latter. It is here that we meet Patrick Lewis, Caravaggio, and a much younger Hana. Lewis is the anti-hero of the story, so deftly written that we grow with him, we love with him, and we grieve with him. I somehow feel that Patrick is closer to Ondaatje's heart more so than any other character that he's written until the advent of Kip in The English Patient. The tale of Patrick's life in "Upper America" made me weep at each reading, as did the sheer beauty of Ondaatje's prose. In my humble opinion, it is his finest prose to date.
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on April 7, 2000
I am trapped by these words, I slow down on each one almost notwanting to know what comes next because I know it'll most certainly besomething that puts me in awe and leaves me hungry for more.
I thought The English Patient was a wonderful book, I walked in Libyan desert looking for Zerzura for weeks after reading that book. But In The Skin Of A Lion is something so much more. This book moves me so I'm left speechless. The continuance, the surprises, the beauty, the characters. If it was possible to choose to write like someone I would absolutely pick Michael Ondaatje. His work is simply beautiful.
I am amazed. Read this book, read all of them. Find the fine red line that ties all the stories together. END
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on January 5, 2001
There is no more poetic and skillful an author on the scene today and this book is a fine illustration of his extraordinary talent. Part of the "big deal" that some fail to see is the sheer mastery with which Ondaatje paints a very deep and complicated portrait of the protagonist and his historical and geographical contexts. He comes at the characters and the plot from a variety of angles. But unlike Faulkner, (those who think this novel difficult should open "The Sound and the Fury"!) Ondaatje uses third person narration to keep us from getting lost. Ondaatje use of metaphor is almost overwhelming and that, ironically, is one of my problems with the book.
It is a bit too romantic in its depictions of some exceedingly difficult lives and there are too many metaphoric descriptions. Everything seems weighted. Nothing is light or allowed to pass easily. That is why some say the book is slow. But it does move along quite well. You need to read it slowly. It's not something to be crammed down or hurried.
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on July 15, 2002
When I get into a certain mood - usually late at night when I know most of my neighborhood is asleep - I take all my Michael Ondaatje books into my bedroom, turn on my bedside 1930's desk lamp, and read some of my favorite passages (of which there are many) from this and other Ondaatje books. Or, if you prefer, collections of words and thoughts wrapped together by a visonary intellect, and well-crafted story teller - marinated in mysticism.
The reader who sticks to Ondaatje does more than merely finish a book. We observe people interrelating thorugh story telling, and if we're lucky we know ourselves a little better in the process. We realize how we are connected to disparate lines of people and stories that have come before us, and whose threads of existence are components of our own time and place. Mr. Ondaatje is a writer and an alchemist.
Many scenes from "In The Skin of A Lion" stick with me, but I especially recall the passage where Patrick wanders into the Canadian night searching for fire flies he sees off in the wooded distance. What he finds is gorgeously, and vividly rendered.
If you've "been wating to read this for a while", if you're just looking for something new and challenging, or if you want to discover a new favorite poet... read this book. If it seems like slow going, or if you're confused - don't be alarmed, it's normal. Keep going.
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on May 1, 2000
I preface this by saying I'm one of the few who did not enjoy the English Patient. I did enjoy this.
The dreamlike, almost random quality of the narrative is amazing and it's filled with wonderdully imagined details and scenes that really put me in awe of this writer. I laughed out loud when Carvaggio escapes prison by painting himself blue, and found myself really touched by the imprints of his lost love that the main character finds continually.
Also, it is obvious the writer did an intense ammount of research into the lives of the people of the 1930's in canada. The workmen, the political statements, the actions all seem so real and work as a good balance to the dreamlike details.
His two weaknesses seem to be his dialogue and the ending. The dialogue constantly pulled me out of the dreamstate I was so happy to be in; I could never hear people talking like they do in this work, but maybe the people I know are vastly different than Ondaatje. The ending was also dissatisfying; it wrapped up almost like a political thriller instead of adhering to the poetic quality that really drives the work.
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on August 23, 1998
'In the Skin of a Lion' is quite possibly the best book I have ever read. The plot requires time, but when it does come, it comes easily and it shines through wonderfully. Ondaatje is a true master of imagery, and so it's best to read this book slowly: take time to devour each scene and try to picture what he writes. And the thematic interest in how history silences and darkens the ordinary people, and how it is precisely the ordinary, the regular, that give history and life their sparks of humanity, Ondaatje weaves all of this into the book unassumingly. Character-wise, Ondaatje introduces us to Caravaggio, who will later feature in 'The English Patient,' and yet is at his richest and most romantically intriguing here, and centres the story around Patrick, and two enigmatic females, Alice and Clara. And of course, there's Temelcoff, swinging through the dark blindly and yet with as much skill as Ondaatje recreates a little-known and yet fascinating taste of Toronto life. I love this book, and could easily read it over and over.
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on March 19, 2000
When I first began reading 'In the Skin of a Lion', I was completely unnerved - the sophisticated catalogue shifts, expositional style, flitting from past tense to present; I harboured the suspicion that there was a method to Ondaatje's seeming madness but I couldn't quite discern it. Ondaatje's historian perspective mingled with the private stories of the characters all lend to a hauntingly beautiful novel. Perhaps it takes a supplementary reading of certain passages to gain a better understanding of the book (as in my case), but it is well worth the effort. 'In the Skin of a Lion' deals broadly with storytelling and immigrant experience. It brings to light the importance of storytelling; through the progression of the novel, we see the first epigraphs unraveling. The novel irrefutably makes readers recognize the essentiality of keeping memories alive. I am planning to read the sequel 'The English Patient' with the expectation that it will be equally enthralling.
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VINE VOICEon June 26, 2009
... but there is order here, very faint, very human." This should be the first sentence of every novel, the narrator reflects midway in Michael Ondaatje extraordinary novel. And he makes taking the time more than worthwhile. Actual short news items are creatively woven into a tapestry of life in and around Toronto during the early decades of the last century. Real or realistic characters, essential for the construction of the city at the time are at the centre of the story: primarily immigrant workers from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds. Ondaatje makes them the heroes of this powerful and captivating novel, with a few established Canadians added into the mix and set against the social and political context of the time. "It is a novel about the wearing and the removal of masks; the shedding of skin, the transformations and translations of identity." Ondaatje stated in an interview, hinting at the novel's title, taken from the ancient Sumerian Epic, Gilgamesh.

A nun falls off a bridge under construction, a millionaire theatre mogul disappears, neither person to be traced or washed up somewhere... "Official histories, news stories surround us daily, but the events of art reach us too late, travel languorously like messages in a bottle." Yet in his novel, the author spins a possible continuation of each news story, bringing the events to life, giving the characters an alternative reality, in which their lives are closely connected to other, imagined, characters.

Patrick Lewis is the central figure in the novel, the linking element of what initially may appear as disconnected stories. With his father he lives on a farm and learns his father's skill as a logging dynamiter. One night, he watches a group of loggers, Finns, dancing on the frozen river, burning cattails in hand. "...Skating the river at night, each of them moving like a wedge into the blackness magically revealing the grey bushes of the shore, HIS shore, HIS river." [emphasis in the text in italics] He is too uncertain of himself to join them despite being transfixed by the beauty and grace of it. "So at this stage in his life, his mind raced ahead of his body." As he grows up and moves around the different lowly jobs open to him, he is increasingly drawn to the communities his mates come from. As one of the few "locals" and English speaking characters, he realizes that the others are not the outsiders, rather he is. He has become the observer and a sideline to events and stories. "His own life was no longer a single story, but part of a mural, which was a falling together of accomplices. Patrick saw a wondrous night web - all of these fragments of a human order, something ungoverned by the family he was born into or the headlines of the day."

One of Patrick's many jobs is that of a "seeker" a private investigater of sorts, who is tasked with finding the whereabouts of Ambrose Small, the theatre mogul. What starts as a job grows into a quest and later obsession, less related to Small as time goes by as to Clara, the gorgeous and mysterious lover. Patrick's emotional maturity will be tested more than once.

Ondaatje is a poet at heart. He is well known for his lyrical strength in evoking emotions and describing intimate relationships and in this novel, these form an essential element in his protagonist's life. In addition, though, whether evoking the atmosphere of the loggers dance on the ice or the depicting the construction workers labouring on the bridge, the leather dyers at the abattoir, he finds a language that adds vivid imagery and poetry to the hardest human conditions. Few authors would have the power of words to bring beauty to the description of the leather dyers, covered in yellow, blue or green dyes, standing together like a living sculpture... Their dangerous work, like that of the bridge construction workers or the dynamiter and others is conveyed with understanding, empathy for the men while at the same time reflecting the growing anger against those in control: those who take "collateral" damage for granted and pass on to the next party and drink. The social tensions in the society of the day are one of the underlying threads of the novel, integrated subtly as an integral part of the immigrants' surroundings and realities. Similar to Divisadero, the various narrative strings are pulled together at the end, but it is helpful to re-read the beginning to close the ellipse completely. A remarkable novel of timeless power [Friederike Knabe]
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on April 15, 2002
As some of the reviewers have said, _In The Skin Of A Lion_ must be read slowly to be truly appreciated, otherwise much of the subtleties of this beautifully written, poetic, and sometimes maddeningly abstract novel will be missed. I usually have no difficulty reading a book while travelling on a train or a bus, but with this book the various distractions made it very difficult to do so. On a number of occasions I found it worthwhile to backtrack to re-read much of what I missed in my first reading.
The book, not so much plot driven, acts more as a mood piece on the romances of Patrick Lewis, the main character, as well as painterly images of the Canadian farms and woodlands and then of workmen's tunnelling under the Great Lakes to build the waterworks which play a very important part in the novel. Then there's the prison escape scene, which may be described as "a meditation in blue."
When plot and action take over, the story becomes incredibly riveting. It made me proud of those individuals, often times desperate, who have risked probable prison terms, and even their lives, to fight for the rights of the little people who built the world's great architectural structures against the millionaires who exploited these workers for financial gain. Patrick Lewis (and Caravaggio, who later appears in _The English Patient_) is such a man, and he is the novel's true heroic anti-hero.
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on August 19, 2000
Michael Ondaatje, the author of "The English Patient," tells the story of Patrick Lewis, a mid-western Canadian farmboy whose father was an explosions specialist who worked with the loggers. Lewis leaves the backwoods and moves to Toronto where seems to be a stranger in his own country. His unusual story revolves somewhat around the building of the waterworks in Toronto in the early half of the century, a monumental work effort involving the building of bridges and viaducts into Lake Ontario. His life takes many turns - some involving the disappearance of a rich man, and the love of an actress. He becomes a specialist with dynamite as well and ends up in jail for an act of some defiance against an antiunionist, anti-immigrant bureaucracy. Ondaatje has a style of writing which is lyrical and poetic (he is, in fact, a published poet) and one needs to be in a quiet room, or an isolated place to absorb all of the stimulus that this writing provides the reader. It is a cerebral novel, and although there is romance and violence, they are depicted in such a way that the reader is softly eased into each circumstance with the fluidity of the words.
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