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Anil's Ghost: A Novel Paperback – April 24, 2001

3.6 out of 5 stars 236 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In his Booker Prize-winning third novel, The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje explored the nature of love and betrayal in wartime. His fourth, Anil's Ghost, is also set during a war, but unlike in World War II, the enemy is difficult to identify in the bloody sectarian upheaval that ripped Sri Lanka apart in the 1980s and '90s. The protagonist, Anil Tissera, a native Sri Lankan, left her homeland at 18 and returns to it 15 years later only as part of an international human rights fact-finding mission. In the intervening years she has become a forensic anthropologist--a career that has landed her in the killing fields of Central America, digging up the victims of Guatemala's dirty war. Now she's come to Sri Lanka on a similar quest. But as she soon learns, there are fundamental differences between her previous assignment and this one:
The bodies turn up weekly now. The height of the terror was 'eighty-eight and 'eighty-nine, but of course it was going on long before that. Every side was killing and hiding the evidence. Every side. This is an unofficial war, no one wants to alienate the foreign powers. So it's secret gangs and squads. Not like Central America. The government was not the only one doing the killing.
In such a situation, it's difficult to know who to trust. Anil's colleague is one Sarath Diyasena, a Sri Lankan archaeologist whose political affiliations, if any, are murky. Together they uncover evidence of a government-sponsored murder in the shape of a skeleton they nickname Sailor. But as Anil begins her investigation into the events surrounding Sailor's death, she finds herself caught in a web of politics, paranoia, and tragedy.

Like its predecessor, the novel explores that territory where the personal and the political intersect in the fulcrum of war. Its style, though, is more straightforward, less densely poetical. While many of Ondaatje's literary trademarks are present--frequent shifts in time, almost hallucinatory imagery, the gradual interweaving of characters' pasts with the present--the prose here is more accessible. This is not to say that the author has forgotten his poetic roots; subtle, evocative images abound. Consider, for example, this description of Anil at the end of the day, standing in a pool of water, "her toes among the white petals, her arms folded as she undressed the day, removing layers of events and incidents so they would no longer be within her." In Anil's Ghost Michael Ondaatje has crafted both a brutal examination of internecine warfare and an enduring meditation on identity, loyalty, and the unbreakable hold the past exerts over the present. --Alix Wilber --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

While he is generally considered a Canadian writer, Booker Prize-winner Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka, and he has chosen to set his powerful and resonant new novel in that country during its gruesome civil war in the mid-1980s. Written in his usual cryptic, elliptical style, much of the story is told in flashbacks, with Ondaatje hinting at secrets even as he divulges facts, revealing his characters' motivations through their desperate or passionate behavior and, most of all, conveying the essence of a people, a country and its history via individual stories etched against a background of natural beauty and human brutality. Anil Tessira, a 33-year-old native Sri Lankan who left her country 15 years before, is a forensic pathologist sent by the U.N. human rights commission to investigate reports of mass murders on the island. Atrocities are being committed by three groups: the government, anti-government insurgents, and separatist guerrillas. Working secretly, these warring forces are decimating a population paralyzed by pervasive fear. Taciturn archeologist Sarath Diyasena is assigned by the government to be Anil's partner; at 49, he is emotionally withdrawn from the chaotic contemporary world, reserving his passion for the prehistoric shards of his profession. Together, Anil and Sarath discover that a skeleton interred among ancient bones in a government-protected sanctuary is that of a recently killed young man. Anil defiantly sets out to document this murder by identifying the victim and then making an official report. Throughout their combined forensic and archeological investigation, detailed by Ondaatje with the meticulous accuracy readers will remember from descriptions of the bomb sapper's procedures in The English Patient, Sarath remains a mysterious figure to Anil. Her confusion about his motives is reinforced when she meets his brother, Gamini, an emergency room doctor who is as intimately involved in his country's turmoil as Sarath refuses to be. The lives of these characters, and of others in their orbits, emerge circuitously, layer by layer. In the end, Anil's moral indignation--and her innocence--place her in exquisite danger, and Sarath is moved to a life-defining sacrifice. Here the narrative, whose revelations have been building with a quiet ferocity, assumes the tension of a thriller, its chilling insights augmented by the visceral emotional effects that masterful literature can provide. More effective than a documentary, Ondaatje's novel satisfies one of the most exalted purposes of fiction: to illuminate the human condition through pity and terror. It may well be the capstone of his career. 200,000 first printing; Random House audio. (May)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 307 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (April 24, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375724370
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375724374
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (236 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #32,086 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on July 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Anil's Ghost is set on the island of Sri Lanka against the backdrop of the civil war turmoil of the mid-1980s and 1990s. Here, three opposing groups battle for control: the government, the anti-government insurgents in the south and the separatist guerrillas in the north.
The book centers around the character of Anil Tissera, a thirty-three year old Sri Lankan born forensic anthropologist sent to her homeland as a United Nations human rights investigator whose mission is to explore various "disappearances," i.e., murders.
Her government-appointed partner is Sarath Diyasera, a forty-nine year old government representative who gives Anil little reason to relax. Although Sarath is capable of reconstructing a vibrant picture of the past based on the flimsiest of clues, his motives and alliances seem more than slightly questionable. Sarath, however, is often misunderstood, for this is a man who understands the moral complexities of the modern world in their historical context, who knows what can and cannot be done and who views "truth" as the ambiguous statement it is.
While excavating a site in a sanctuary containing nineteenth century bones, a skeleton of recent date is unearthed, one whose remains also appear to have been moved twice.
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Format: Hardcover
Many have said they are disappointed with the book, but have hinted the writing is far subtler than in earlier books. That's exactly it.
While there are a few pages of less-than-stellar prose (for a 300-page book, it is extremely tight), Ondaatje has pulled off some amazing things here. Foremost is his ability to link the landscape with the human. From diamond and plumbago mines to the ruins of palaces to the inscription filled caves that once housed ascetic monks, the author lets the geography and conflict of Sri Lanka reveal the geography and conflict of being.
And just as the characters hoard individual inscriptions (Warning: WHEN IT RAINS, THESE STEPS ARE BEAUTIFUL or more brutually "In diagnosing a vascular injury, a high index of suspicion is necesary."), you'll come across sentences, paragraphs, pages you'll want to commit to memory.
Finally, the experience of discovery, the delving and decryption involved in reading the book is so, well, lovingly mirrored in the character's investigations (of self, memory, identity) that you read with the sense that you are doing something important, that you are ferreting out a deep and wonderful secret about the human experience. That you, like the artists and doctors in the story, are revealing pain only to heal it, figuring the dead only to honor and remember them.
Read, I implore you, this wonderful, horrible, beautiful book.
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I truly enjoyed reading Anil's Ghost and was suprised at some of the negative feedback people had about the experience of reading the book. Some other readers have called the book boring and couln't even finish, but I had a very different experience. I appreciated the slow, careful time Ondaatje took to develop his characters and to tell his story. The lack of "fast paced" plot made me notice and enjoy the revealing details of the book and the rich words used to describe Shri Lanka. I thought Anil was a fascinating character, though there were times in the book where I wanted more of her, especiallly on a more emotional level. The book is dealing with many kinds of intensities and it can be difficult to process. The intensity of the political situation in Shri Lanka is intertwined with the complexities of various relationships. I started reading this book expecting it to be like The English Patient. This was quite an error and I was pleasently surprised. Don't read Anil's Ghost if you are interested in a book with a quick revealing plot and defined characters. The plot slowly reveals itself to create a book that is intriguing, powerful and well worth reading.
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This is a really great book. However, those looking for a repeat of The English Patient may be disappointed. While the writing style is very similar (Ondaatje's poetic descriptions) the organization is much clearer and easier to follow. It isn't until 2/3 of the way into the book that he begins to mix events around. But it works! The characters are as fascinating as those we know from The English Patient, but the plot is far more interesting, and his descriptions near sublime. This book is poetic, disturbing and uplifting all at the same time. One can imagine that this is a topic that is closer to the heart of the author, but no matter what, it comes through as a thoughtful, inspired work of art.
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Although there are many reviews of "Anil's Ghost" already posted, I felt compelled to write another on the grounds that many reviewers appear to have not fully appreciated Ondaatje's goals in this book. I share the opinion of some of the other readers, that this is Ondaatje's best work to date. In my case I'll go farther and say this is the best novel I've read in several years. Some people seem to be finding the book dull, and it is certainly not standard best-seller fare. It is subtle, allusive, and not driven by plot. Although it concerns the civil war in Sri Lanka, it is not *about* it. Although it concerns the search of a forensic anthropologist for the origin of a possibly-murdered skeleton it is not about that either. Readers who approach the novel as mystery are bound for disappointment, because this is not a novel of revelation, but one of concealment. It would perhaps be best to consider "Anil's Ghost" as a poetic meditation on the nature and search for truth. As it examines truth from many angles, it comes to no pat conclusions, which may also be troubling for some readers. Instead it uses the compelling characters and dramatic structure to illustrate the complexity of truth, while not absolving us of the duty of searching for it. The specific setting is necessary for the development of the themes, which are, nonetheless, universal. The prose is perhaps not as intensely beautiful as that of "The English Patient," but that is appropriate for the subject matter. Ondaatje has written a story of torture and murder which is neither thoroughly dark, nor simplistically heroic. Instead he gives us a multilayered truth in which the deepest darkness still allows a space for hope. It is a subtle, brilliant, stunning book.
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