Moosomin Book Club
In the Skin of the Lion by Michael Ondaatje
Written by Grace Armstrong who could not be at the March `99 meeting
First of all, my regrets that I can't be with you this evening. I was looking forward to hearing others' reactions to this book.
I like this book very much but need to read it again, maybe more than once, to fully grasp the way the plot evolves. Although it seemed disjoint, paradoxically that didn't irritate me. On the contrary I felt quite soon that I was in the hands of a master writer. given that quality of writing, you just wanted to go where the characters, the drama, and the lyrical passages led. Unforgettable images: the Finnish skaters at night on the river; skating by the light of cattails; leaping and dancing because they had to have joy, expression, life to cope with the emotion starvation of their daily labour; Temelcoff swinging down from the bridge, catching the falling nun, who then has freedom to choose to disappear into a whole new life.
I found the central characters to be interesting and their evolution was believable. Patrick on page 157 describes himself as simply a prism that refracts the lives of Clara, Ambrose, Alice, Temelcoff and Cato. In the end however, he rescues Caravaggio, performs an heroic journey (whether dreamed or actual we are left to decide for ourselves) through the underwater labyrinth. He emerges to set out on the final journey to claim Clara, the enigmatic women he loves most deeply of all. These characters are satisfying, you feel their passions, angers, pains, transformation, growths. The "crow scenes" give the socio-economic context. The masses of labourers in their grinding poverty are well contrasted with the educated rich. In this novel the boundary between myth and history, reality and dreams seems always fragile.
Looking back to Butala's writing in Garden of Eden, set in southwestern Saskatchewan and Ethiopia. I was struck by the much greater fluidity and poetic ease of Ondaatje's description of life, people and environment of 19th century Toronto. It seems to me that Butala researches well, describes very well, and sometimes reaches identification. Onjaatje also researches thoroughly, yet succeeds in going beyond description, beyond identification even, to writing as art. Butala got close to it in some of her passages describing Ethiopia, I thought, but not in her general writing about south western Saskatchewan. I thought Ondaatje's book to be a gem of Canadian literature