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In the Skin of a Lion
 
by
Michael Ondaatje
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In the Skin of a Lion

3.88 of 5 stars 3.88  ·  rating details  ·  8,839 ratings  ·  574 reviews
Bristling with intelligence and shimmering with romance, this novel tests the boundary between history and myth. Patrick Lewis arrives in Toronto in the 1920s and earns his living searching for a vanished millionaire and tunneling beneath Lake Ontario. In the course of his adventures, Patrick's life intersects with those of characters who reappear in Ondaatje's Booker Priz...more
Paperback, 256 pages
Published November 1st 1988 by Penguin Books (first published 1987)
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Maciek
In the Skin of a Lion is a hazy, dreamlike novel, which transports its readers to the city of Toronto in the early 20th century. This is the time when countless immigrants came to the city - escaping misery, wars and poverty that was their daily life in the Old World. The glimmering lights of the New World shore brightly across the ocean, and they journeyed across it for weeks, seduced by their promises of a new and better life. These masses of immigrants - often poor and uneducated - built, for...more
Marcelo
Astounding. One of the best novels I've ever read. Ondaatje does things with language that should be almost illegal, giving us scenes that can be at the same time lush and heartbreakingly stark, weaving in and out of different timeframes and contexts with the fluidity and free association of memory. His depictions of the hard work these characters undertake in early 20th Century Canada (bridge building, logging, tunnel drilling under Lake Ontario in order to build a water purification plant) hav...more
Teresa
A book full of sights and more, signifying much, including, and in a big way, one of my favorite themes -- that of the 'little' people, the ones 'behind the scenes' of history, the ones we'll never know.

After reading this book, I feel like I've been to Ontario and in particular Toronto during the early-20th century. Toronto is a teeming, vibrant multicultural community, so much so that the main character from backwoods Ontario feels like the outsider. Though to be completely accurate, he probabl...more
·Karen·
A full five star endorsement for a novel that has a mesmeric, hallucinatory quality. Images as powerful and poignant as a dream, narrative that slips and weaves and ducks between people, places and time, and an impressive sweep of invention that catches the breath. Ondaatje uncovers the story of those whose labour created Toronto landmarks in the early twentieth century, deftly knitting up truth and myth, revealing the lives of those who were forgotten in the official version of history.

Actuall...more
Moses Kilolo
I got through the first fifty or so pages solely because of the poetic language of this book. Otherwise I would have meandered my way, got lost somewhere, looked around for help, and finding none, tossed the book away.

I am not a big fan of so many characters, so many voices, and so much happening in a book. But with this one I remained patient. And lord I'm I not grateful. It seems that I have been richly rewarded.

This is book is set in Toronto in the '30s. And except for Patrick, the main prot...more
Alison
Jan 27, 2010 Alison rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: lovers of intimate cityscapes and dreamy histories made vivid with breathaking style.
Shelves: favorites
There is a scene, in the very beginning of this book, during which Patrick Lewis, primary voice among the the half-dozen or so protagonists, watches Scandinavian men skate home over a frozen river on a dark winter's night in Northern Ontario, carrying handfuls of burning cattails over their heads. Ondaatje, who is the rare poet capable of writing great fiction, describes the scene thusly:

"It was not just the pleasure of skating. They could have done that during the day. This was against the nig...more
Andy
The best book I've read in 5 years.

But everyone I recommend it to hates it.

The prose is poetry, and the genetic connection to Ondaatje's earlier prose-poem works like "Coming through Slaughter" is obvious. But the power of this book resides in his characterization - you come to be absolutely devoted to the individuals - and I choose that word deliberately - that populate this novel. Though sparingly described, they seem more familiar than the characters so exhaustively cataloged in much pomo f...more
Ben Babcock
It’s never a good sign when the first thing you do after finishing a book is to go to its Wikipedia page and scrutinize the plot summary for some hint of what happened.

For some reason, I always choose to read a complex or very “literary” type of novel on what turn out to be my busiest weeks. When I started In the Skin of a Lion, I was neck-deep in my unit planning for my English instruction course. (I developed a unit for Grade 9s studying A Wizard of Earthsea.) Even my impressive ability to fin...more
Marie
In the middle of this novel, Ondaatje writes:

"The first sentence of every novel should be: "Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.'"

And this seems to be Ondaatje's philosophy about his novels.

I read this book because we are headed to Toronto at the end of August, and this was described to me as the "quintessential Toronto novel." However, I found myself scanning pages and anxiously hoping that I would get to the end. Not signs of a good novel for me!

Some...more
Shauna
There were moments of beauty and visual acuity, but more often there were moments of muddlesome bemusement. Story arcs left hanging, dangling tantalizingly (a nun falling off a bridge to be caught in mid-air, but then what...?)--abandoned, but returned to eventually. Satisfying and unsatisfying at the same time. There is a quote in the book that seems to sum up my feelings of this book:
"Only the best art can order the chaotic tumble of events. Only the best can realign chaos to suggest both the
...more
graycastle
This is my favourite of Ondaatje's novels, and I am quite the Ondaatje fan, so. This is pomo in ways that are by now familiar: interested in collage-style historical documentation, nonlinear, imagistic, in opposition to grand narratives, obsessed with artistic creation, etc. And I love that stuff, because it is awesome. But what really makes this work is Ondaatje's prose, which is lush and visceral and delicious - he invests all of his characters with a specific kind of depth resultant from the...more
Adam
Ondaatje. I understand why people like at least some of his work. I understand why his prose is appealing, though it's the sort of thing nobody can do without occasionally seeming laughable (not even Virginia Woolf). I sort of get the appeal.

But I'm really sick of IMPORTANT LITERARY FICTION in Canada and really, really sick of IMPORTANT LITERARY FICTION's dominance of the Canadian literary scene. This trend seems to really have kicked off with Ondaatje's GGA win for The English Patient. Before...more
April
I finished reading this book several weeks ago just before an interview at the National Arts Centre with Michael Ondaatje. In face, I believe I finished it mere hours before seeing him speak.

I had never read an Ondaatje book, and felt that I should, given the fact that I was about to see an hour long interview with the man. I chose In the Skin of A Lion based on this thread on Ask Metafilter. Lion came up several times as the Quintessential Canadian Novel (something I find interesting, given the...more
Iida
This novel is the reason novels need to be written. Ondaatje is always a stunning writer, his prose brushing up against poetry in the very best of ways, but In the Skin of a Lion rivals The English Patient with its imagery. I re-read this novel about once a year, and every time the first cracking of the spine is an almost spiritual experience.

Ondaatje is a rare writer of historical fiction in that his background knowledge is clearly immense, but he doesn't feel the need to lay it all out in the...more
Sarah
First things first: I do not think Michael Ondaatje gets enough credit. I know that he wrote "The English Patient," which became an epic romantic film with Ralph Fiennes. But not only is "The English Patient" a wonderful book, but ALL of his books are beautiful. "In the Skin of a Lion" may be my favorite.

I have a great love affair with Ondaatje's prose, which gently lilts and probes and carefully illuminates the most telling truths about his characters. There are very few other writers whose wor...more
Mary
I'm currently rereading this small novel which I think is a masterpiece of restrained and beautiful writing. Ondaatje can infuse eroticism into the struggles of the working class--in the 1920s in this novel. He introduces the characters here that will reappear in The English Patient. It is about so many things: how immigrants cope with a new land, how they learn the language of that land (hilariously by listening to Fats Waller songs in addition to going to plays and memorizing the lines along w...more
Kaelee
Honestly, I utterly despised this book. I had no end of people telling me that this was one of the most divine, perfectly written books EVER. What I saw when I read it was literary masturbation. I'll concede Ondaatje has an elegant way of stringing together lots of beautiful words and phrases and moments, but I don't think that that alone can make a book. Others have said they think the characters in this are so real as to make you utterly devoted to them. I struggled to sympathise with a single...more
Lexxie
This was a very haunting story, about all kinds of people from different places in the world, their life paths crossing in mysterious ways. The language was sometimes very poetic, other times quite crude. Patrick was introduced first only as 'the boy' and he was the only Canadian in the story, all the other characters were immigrants. Patrick himself felt like an immigrant when he moved to Toronto, he was lost, with no real goal.

The end was very open, with no real resolution for any of them.
Celeste
Mar 04, 2008 Celeste rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Celeste by: Book Club Selection
Overall, my thoughts are mixed... while this is a superbly written book and I enjoyed it, I didn't love. And I found the large breaks in time in the story confusing and a bit frustrating. The story is beautifully written. And I really enjoyed the historical aspects of the building of Toronto. However, I was frustrated by the lack of character development; just as you would get into a character's story, the character would be dropped.
Lisa
In the Skin of a Lion is Michael Ondaatje’s second novel and the predecessor to The English Patient which won the Booker Prize and was made into a stunning film starring Ralph Fiennes. It’s an intriguing exposé of the immigrant dispossessed who built the city’s infrastructure in the 1920s. As the city is transformed by their labour so too must Ondaatje’s characters transform themselves and adapt to their new lives but they do this in unxpected ways. The book features disconnected narratives whic...more
LemonLinda
I must say that this book was beautifully written and that Ondaatje is a master with words, but beautiful prose is not all that I need in a book. I want a fully developed plot and characters that I grow to love and/or am invested in what happens to them. This book did not have that for me. It was disjointed, disconnected, hard to follow and at times even confusing. Maybe the problem is that it was too erudite and intellectual for me. Usually I am a fast reader and once I am involved in a book, I...more
Maureen
Wow!~ I just finished this book and it blew me away. I read it after hearing an author discuss it as her favorite book that she read over and over and needed multiple copies so that she could pick it up to read passages wherever she was on NPR. I understand what she means and might do the same myself. This author (I forget her name, sorry!) beautifully described how it feels to read a book that is like a precious jewel that you're not sure you want to share with just anyone - people have to be g...more
Carole
Michael Ondaatje 's In the Skin of a Lion is best described by two of his own paragraphs in this book:

"Only the best art can order the chaotic tumble of events. Only the best can realign chaos to suggest both the chaos and order it will become."

"Within two years of 1066, work began on the Bayeux Tapestry, Constantin the African brought Greek medicine to the Western world. The chaos and tumble of events. The first sentence of every novel should be:"Trust me, this will take time but there is order...more
Andreea
In the Skin of a Lion is a striking and spellbinding piece of literature. It poses questions that deal with our humanity and makes us question our perspective.

The book takes place in the 1920’s and 30’s, and follows Patrick Lewis, an immigrant to the city of Toronto. Through his character we are given insight into the lives of immigrants, workers and marginal individuals that helped build the city. These men and women molded and shaped Toronto into what it is today. Ondaatje sheds light on the...more
Philippe
It was quite a while since I had read something by Ondaatje. I read "The English Patient" twice, a few years ago. The first time I was enthralled. But my second reading disappointed me. With "In the Skin of a Lion" I retraced this emotional trajectory in the space of reading a single book.

I know Ondaatje doesn't want us to look for a polished, coherent story in his books. In "Skin" he warns the reader in a variety of ways for the inevitable disorder and multiplicity of his narrative universe. Th...more
Tony
IN THE SKIN OF A LION. (1987). Michael Ondaatje. ****.
Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and now lives and works in Canada. His later novel, “The English Patient,” won the Booker Prize and was later made into an Academy Award winning film. This novel, written five years before “The English Patient,” was its prequel. Several of the characters in this novel show up in the subsequent book. This one tells the story of several different immigrants to Totonto, along with country Canadians who mo...more
David Lentz
Michael Ondaatje writes with a rare, original and genuinely vivid clarity. That is, the images that he paints jump off the page, grab you by the lapels and shake you. While other writers have this talent, this writer has the soul of a poet and the net effect is that you are moved by what you read. It's impossible for his creative penchants for metaphor, simile, characterization and imagery not to get inside your head and fire your imagination. Some of the scenes are hauntingly beautiful, especia...more
Steve
This is the kind of book that makes people want to become a writer. This wasn't so much a novel as it was a long piece of prose poetry. Unbelievably well written, graphic and memorable. I wanted to give it 5 stars but some of the passages were a bit tough to follow due to the all the time sequence changes and character introductions. The 'novel' focuses on Patrick growing up in rural Canada. Each section of the book examines a different part of Patrick's life and either his growing dislike of th...more
Nick Schroeder
Feb 01, 2011 Nick Schroeder rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Nick by: Book club pick
Shelves: to-be-reread
I gave this a "5" — "It was amazing" — something I don't often do because I feel a book has to live up to that evaluation and while many, many books are really, really good, few are amazing. This one was amazing. In the Skin of a Lion was a pick for a book club and having not read Ondaatje before I was looking forward to it. I am now looking forward to rereading it (and reading other works by him) in the near future. Ondaatje is a poet as well as a novelist, it shows. His language is wonderful....more
Rob
It's hard to really describe what In the Skin of a Lion is about. Parts of this novel are about Macedonian workers in Torontos in the 30s, others are about a vanished millionaire, others are about the life and loves of Patrick Lewis. Thematically, Ondaatje here deals mainly with history, both in how it is created and how it is read. Patrick swims in history, both witnessing it being made and searching through it in hope for meaning.

While In the Skin of a Lion is undoubtedly well-crafted and has...more
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He was born to a Burgher family of Dutch-Tamil-Sinhalese-Portuguese origin. He moved to England with his mother in 1954. After relocating to Canada in 1962, Ondaatje became a Canadian citizen. Ondaatje studied for a time at Bishops College School and Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Quebec, but moved to Toronto and received his BA from the University of Toronto and his MA from Queen's Universit...more
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“Everyone has to scratch on walls somewhere or they go crazy” 42 likes
“The joyful will stoop with sorrow, and when you have gone to the earth I will let my hair grow long for your sake, I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion” 25 likes
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