Thursday, January 27, 2011

In the Skin of the Lion - Book Club Review

Michael Ondaatje

As you will see from the reviews below, we are a mixed bunch when it comes to opinions.  Certainly Mr Ondaatje caused some very lively debate regarding quality prose versus the merits/necessity for plot.  Some people fell in love, whilst others were less so.  All part of life's rich tapestry I guess!!

 (See excerpt link below)

I love In the Skin of a Lion because it changed my opinion of what a novel can be. Michael Ondaatje is a very unique writer - his style and sense of structure is very distinctive and original. He is not linear, and eventually, as his 'very faint, very human' structure reveals itself, I found myself submitting to a free, image and character-driven version of storytelling. What is initially frustrating but ultimately liberating is the extent to which he allows you to make up your own mind. I like that sense of unpredictability in Ondaatje, that the story is written on the wing (like life) and that the story can go anywhere at any time. Not many novelists are able to make you feel you are on such a free-floating journey when you read their books.

Ondaatje is a great writer, it's just a shame that he's not such a good storyteller.

Hauntingly beautiful, perfect writing, poetic, moving, thought provoking - this book really does ‘bristle with intelligence’ as the blurb on the back cover suggests. Historically very informative I felt I learnt a lot about Canada’s backwoods and the ‘throbbing polyglot city’ - and about the particular tensions between rich and poor, excess and want.  The descriptions of work, of back breaking labour and the products of that labour were also exceptional.
Maybe I’m just too tired but I had to work a little too hard at times to follow the plot– I got lost and had to re-read a good bit to the point where I have to confess I wouldn’t have made it had I not committed to read it in the group. This would have been an awful shame because I would have missed so much and especially the exhilarating debate it caused.  I fell in love with four of the characters -  Nicholas, Hana, Caravaggio and Gianetta (in the order in which we meet them).  Maybe I haven’t read enough of this postmodern structure and it will grow on me but – in the end - in terms of plot I felt a bit left at sea like Caravaggio and Gianetta – and not sure if the author will come back for me.

Really nice, poetic writing, shame about the plot being stuck so deep in Mr Ondaatje's subconscious that he completely failed to tell us poor mere mortal readers what was going on.

I was left with a love/hate feeling towards ‘In the Skin of a Lion’, mainly because Ondaatje sought to bury plot and understanding so deep that at times, it was like finding a needle in a haystack, a beautiful haystack, but a haystack all the same.  The novel has merit on many fronts, some of the brief encounters alone, like the meeting with the young boy Al, by themselves would salvage you from hating this novel because of their pure joy to read.  There is absolutely no doubt that the man can write and does so brilliantly about love and sex and many other things, but at a cost.  Overall I was glad I read it, and understood that it would not be a linear tale, but his ‘very faint, very human’ structure', (a quote I got from google during the reading of the novel, because I needed to know what made the man tick!) was a little too faint for my mental well being at times.

This book is about the immigrants in Toronto in the 1920’s who built the bridges, waterworks, tunnels.  It is about the dispossessed, those without who see the lives of the rich and feel the anger burning within them.  Sometimes they rise against it or get drunk and feel kinship among their own. It is a book about love.  Love that doesn’t own but is given freely.  It is a book about life, the whimsy of it and the way we grow.  Above all, it is a book about language that makes each reading, be it the second, third or hundredth, as pleasurable, if not more so then the first.  It is a work of genius.  Allow yourself to be immersed within its pages and the world changes. 

In the Skin of a Lion - all 20 pages I managed - suggested itself as a challenging, yet beautifully written novel. Creating a fierce debate about whether exquisite writing is enough to make a book worth reading, or whether a conventional story arc is a must, it certainly evoked strong feeling in those who managed to get to the end. And after hearing the lively debate - flying nuns, arsonists, banana cake! - I think I might just go back and finish it.

Next month's book club choice is 'The Pornographer'
by John Mc Gahern see introduction link below:-


  1. I haven't read this one of his, but any book by Ondaatje would have generated such a debate. I can't think of a better author for the purpose.

  2. Not ready any of his books, but loved looking at your picture of that interesting face! LOL

  3. I won't be finishing it after all. My mother announced that she had hated 'Room' by E D, so I reckoned in that case, seeing as I'd loved it and Blathnaid had hated it, then maybe my mammy would like 'Skin...' just like Blathnaid. I send her home with my copy.

  4. Jinskey, looks like he is taking on the appearance of a lion alright!

  5. Dave the debate was lively for sure, and Domestic Oub, tell Mother to give her review and I'll amend the post! You should always listen to your mother!!!


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