Book description

Book info

eBook formatHardcover, (torrent)En
PublisherAmer Audio Prose Library Inc
File size1.2 Mb
Release date 01.09.1993
Book rating4.01 (160 votes)
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(This review pertains to "In the Skin of the Lion" only)

A story about immigrants and their neighborhoods, and the building of the city of Toronto, about capitalists and the workers they exploit, about love and revenge, loss and recovery.

Told in a lyrical style with scenes set apart from each other yet obliquely carrying the story line, Ondaatje's novel spans the early 1900's leading up to WWII, although, surprisingly, the impact of WWI on Canada gets a pass. Patrick is a farm boy and an immigrant to the city; Nicholas is an immigrant from Macedonia, Carol is a poor girl hanging out with an enigmatic millionaire, and Alice yearns for Patrick to take notice of her - all of them in strange territory, looking for acceptance.

Two large constructionprojects that gave Toronto it's character anchor this novel: the Bloor Viaduct and the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, and yet the country is named Upper America, making me wonder whether "Canada" was not a good sell in publishing circles at the time of this book's publication in the '80's. Many immigrant workers gave their lives to build these two engineering landmarks and the author gives us some unforgettable images: a nun falling off the half constructed bridge and being saved, immigrant workers organizing theatre performances on the worksite to alleviate the tedium of their lives, an intruder using the intake from the lake to gain access to the water treatment plant.

There is also a lot of interesting detail, revealed in poetic prose, on dynamiting logjams, on how immigrants learn English, the Bertillon System, tunneling underwater, dye work. I would not take the trouble to read up on these subjects, but in Ondaatje's mellifluous prose they are digestible. Even the sex act is transformed into poetry rather than pornography: check out the scene where the spoils of fellatio are shared by the lovers until diminishing returns accrue in their mouths.

I found the characters somewhat unconvincing: Patrick and Caravaggio come across as poetic academics and not of their hard scrabble farm and immigrant milieus, and the women are rather flaky in their romantic loyalties despite their sturdy working class backgrounds. The author resorts to the technique (probably innovative at the time, but rather overused today) of revealing an important fact, or aninflection point, further down the story path and then following up by flashing back to how we arrived at that point, and upon reaching it, flashing forward again to the next inflection point to back track, and so on.

Union busting, worker exploitation and closing of the ranks around the economically privileged "one percent" were alive and well in the early 20th century, and with their resurgence today, make this book topical. And the workers strike back, with arson and violence, not unlike our jaded youth of today who run away to foreign climes to gain infamy through terrorism.

As for the story itself, it meanders, often into unconnected areas, before coming to somewhat of a resolution in the end, and not all loose threads are tied. But then Ondaatje has his spin on the novel when he says that 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." Ondaatje even has a take on his own life as an artist when millionaire Ambrose says to Patrick, "You don't want power. You were born to be a younger brother."

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