In the Skin of A Lion by Michael Ondaatje ~ Book Review


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In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje was published in 1987 and is a story about loneliness and identity. We are introduced to several men and women in the 1930s, particularly during the construction of a bridge and water plant in Toronto. Although the book looks at the immigrant experience, the main character is not an immigrant. Patrick Lewis is a loner who moves to the city after growing up with his father in Northern Ontario. Patrick prefers to remain on the outside looking in and chooses to live and work alongside immigrants, thus encouraging a language barrier that keeps others at a distance. However, a brief job as a “searcher” leads Patrick down a winding path of love and reveals his desperate need to know another person completely.

“She watched him, understanding what kind of love was behind his stare.”

As the first book in my attempt to read more Canadian literature, I hungrily dived into the story only to emerge a few hundred pages later totally mystified by what I read. Even though Patrick is the main character, the reader drops in and out of his life, stepping into the shoes of another character for awhile. When we meet Patrick again, time and his situation have shifted. I found this fragmented format incoherent and difficult to follow. The story unravels in such slow motion, I often pushed myself to read faster in the hopes of speeding things up, but it was only the equivalent of a car wheel spinning in the mud.

I couldn’t shake the impression the characters were merely ghosts in Patrick Lewis’ memory and every scene was an echo from his past. I detected no warmth or colour in their personalities. Even Patrick seems to drift through the story like an apparition. I watched the story unfold through his eyes, but there was nothing compelling for me to hold onto about him or the story. I didn’t feel empathy or sadness or hope for Patrick. I didn’t really care for him as a character at all.

“Patrick believed in archaic words like befall and doomed. The doom of Patrick Lewis.”

As a former resident of Toronto, the best thing about In the Skin of A Lion for me was the historical account of the construction of the Prince Edward Viaduct and R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant. I wrote about the viaduct (also known as the Luminous Veil) for a university project and lived nearby north of the Danforth many years ago. I can appreciate the time and effort Michael Ondaatje took researching the projects and weaving the details into this book, right down to the part about the anonymous cyclist who intrusively crossed the bridge. However, until I read this book, it never occurred to me that these projects were built with the blood, sweat and tears of the city’s immigrant population. The book spells it out clearly; men died working on these construction projects as cheap labour and their deaths have pretty much faded away into history unrecognized. I think Ondaatje wanted to draw attention to the tragic human element of these projects and it’s probably the one thing I will never forget about this book.

“- … Think about those who built the intake tunnel. Do you know how many of us died in there?

– There was no record kept.”

Overall, I was surprised at how apathetic I was reading In the Skin of A Lion. I normally have some kind of feeling for a book, but maybe this book was just not for me.

3/5 Stars – Three stars mostly because I enjoyed the historical content in the book.


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