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In the Skin of a Lion

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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 Prize-winning The English Patient. 256 pp.

256 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1987

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About the author

Michael Ondaatje

131 books3,659 followers
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 University in Kingston, Ontario and began teaching at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. In 1970 he settled in Toronto. From 1971 to 1988 he taught English Literature at York University and Glendon College in Toronto.

He and his wife, novelist and academic Linda Spalding, co-edit Brick, A Literary Journal, with Michael Redhill, Michael Helm, and Esta Spalding.

Although he is best known as a novelist, Ondaatje's work also encompasses memoir, poetry, and film.

Ondaatje has, since the 1960s, also been involved with Toronto's influential Coach House Books, supporting the independent small press by working as a poetry editor.

In 1988 Michael Ondaatje was made an Officer of the Order of Canada (OC) and two years later became a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

He has two children and is the brother of philanthropist, businessman, and author Christopher Ondaatje.

In 1992 he received the Man Booker Prize for his winning novel adapted into an Academy-Award-winning film, The English Patient.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,201 reviews
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,952 reviews1,295 followers
March 1, 2012
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 find time to read was put to the test, and it didn’t help that Michael Ondaatje’s prose and narrative are both incredibly stylized and poetic. I’m starting to develop a guilty conscience for not liking books like this more, because there is nothing wrong with being stylized or poetic, so I can understand why Ondaatje’s writing appeals to some people. But my mood and the timing were such that my heart just wasn’t invested in this book, and that makes it very difficult for me to separate my apathy toward the act of reading it with any apathy I might feel as a result of the story itself.

I just didn’t pay attention to what was going on in this book. The narrative mostly follows one character, Patrick Lewis, son of an explosives expert. It jumps sometimes to a few other characters, such as Nicolas Temelcoff, with all of these characters related to Patrick’s narrative in some way. Ondaatje portrays the poor-to-abysmal quality of life of the lower class that laboured to construct some of Toronto’s greatest early twentieth-century achievements in city infrastructure. In the Skin of a Lion is a novel of blood, sweat, and tears of the immigrants who helped build one of the hubs of our nation. It’s ambitious, and in some sense I would agree that Ondaatje realizes his ambition.

Alas, I couldn’t quite stay along for the ride. Ondaatje plays fast and loose with flashbacks, and maybe this says something about my limitations as a reader, but I prefer a straightforward internal chronology. It would have helped if there were a single character to anchor me to the narrative, but they all feel interchangeable, even Patrick. There is no protagonist because there is no conflict, just the faceless shuffle against the background the inequity of life. Patrick seems to do things, once in a while, including some fairly risky actions with explosives, but I was too disengaged to be able to speak intelligently about why he might have done this.

The back cover bills this as a love story. A love story between whom? Patrick and Clara? Patrick and Alice? People and Toronto? There are times when it feels like one or all three of these … but those times are difficult to distinguish from each other. There is just an oppressive sense of bland sameness to every chapter of this novel such that even though I’m sure things happened, it never felt like they were happening. The present tense submerged the plot and did not let go until all its limbs had quite thrashing and, finally, went limp. And I never quite understood Patrick’s motivation—why was he so interested in digging into everyone’s past?

I am dissatisfied not with the book but with me. In my review of Napier’s Bones I talk about letting a book down, and now that sentiment has returned. It’s not a case of a book failing to live up to its hype; rather, I feel unable to judge effectively whether it did or didn’t do that. When I dislike a book, I want to be able to present cogent reasons why. I hate feeling like one of those people who just completely missed the point of the exercise. Yet the prospect of re-reading this book when my mind is less taxed does not particularly excite me.

Such is the ultimate refuge of subjectivity, I suppose: we readers are humans, not book-devouring robots. (I know, I know, hard to believe!) We have moods and phases, and sometimes a perfect storm of time and tasks and not-the-right-book combine to throw us off our groove. I can neither recommend this book nor caution others against it. It’s definitely beautiful, in its own way, and I can see why it has attracted acclaim. But it is not universally accessible: it demands a certain amount of stillness, to channel Yann Martel for a moment, that I couldn’t quite provide this time around.

I have another Ondaatje kicking around somewhere. Maybe the second book will be easier than the first. But that is for another week.

Creative Commons BY-NC License
Profile Image for Maggie Stiefvater.
Author 81 books168k followers
February 27, 2023
Not for me.

If I'd known Ondaatje had a Booker Prize book (The English Patient) to his name, I probably would have considered myself warned; I bounce off Bookers like . . . like . . . what's something that bounces? Like jell-o bounces off a duck's back. I used to think I wasn't clever enough for Booker winners, and now I just think that Bookers tend to prioritize recursive, thematic novels without a lot of aggressive external structure, and I, a straightforward creature, love an aggressive external structure.

Use this information as you will.

*note: I tackled this book as part of my 2023 reading challenge to read books from this crowd-sourced list of recommended standalone novels published between 1985-2007: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/...

Please know that I am a brittle and crotchety reader, so please don't take my opinions on these novels as universal.
Profile Image for Marcelo.
89 reviews2 followers
February 9, 2011
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) have a scale, a daring and a sense of the concrete and muscular that are beyond compare. And in between all of this, he gives us a sweet and sad story of immigrants, torn between destitution and the promise of the New World, between loves past and loves present, between rich and poor, that are vivid, precise, lived-in. You will remember many scenes in this book for weeks - the nuns being tossed around by the wind on an unfinished bridge, a daring escape from prison, a confrontation (ending in a molotov cocktail) between a rich man who wants to disappear and the searcher that is looking for him to retrieve the woman he loves, and a final denouement at the Palace of Purification that is at the same time sad, thrilling and reaffirming of the basic decency of a human being. Superb.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,780 reviews1,459 followers
July 2, 2018
The writing, the manner by which the author has woven fact into a fictional tale and the book’s central message explain why I like this book as much as I do. We are given a story that is carefully planned and well executed. Every detail is there for a purpose. Even section titles have been carefully considered. The “finished product” is very good.

We are told at the start that every novel should begin with the line:

“Trust me, this will take time, but there is order here, very faint, very human.”

Not every novel can successfully fulfill such a promise. This one does.

The writing alone is worth four stars. Ondaatje draws scenes that readers will not forget. One that stands out for me are skaters, on a creek, in the dark of night, each holding a sheaf of blazing cats’ tails before them. These skaters we lean later to be Finnish immigrants. Two women playfully, and lovingly, wrestling together is another scene I will not forget. Sexual encounters are drawn with the brush of an artist. The scenes are not only beautifully drawn, but they also tie well into the tale. They are both beautiful and important.

This is a book of historical fiction, its purpose being to draw attention to immigrant labor in the Americas, a group of people whose work should be applauded and given the recognition they merit. Without them our cities would not be what they are today. History often fails to give immigrants the merit they are due. The novel looks at Toronto in the beginning of the 20th century--the building of the Prince Edward Viaduct and the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant by immigrant labor with poor pay and working conditions. Little or no concern is taken in regards to their living quarters. The Prince Edward Viaduct is also known as the Bloor Viaduct. Who were these men and women who built our cities? What were their lives like? It is this that is the central theme of the book.

True facts are seamlessly woven into the fictional tale. They do not stick out. They are not excessive. They do not smother the story. We learn of R.C. Harris, the bridge’s designer and commissioner of public works in Toronto at this time. The viaduct was to be a double-decked truss arched bridge, carrying water, electricity and traffic and linking eastern Toronto with the city center. As readers, we are there in the construction of the bridge, alongside immigrant labor. We learn of events that were in the news while the bridge was being built—the fall of a nun from the as yet incomplete bridge, the disappearance of Ambrose Small (a bigwig theater owner), labor union meetings and the murder of labor union activists. Ondaatje spent months studying the City of Toronto archives and newspapers. He has taken the known and the unknown and woven the two into a fictional tale. It is up to the reader to search the net to discover what has been stretched. The story is so convincingly written that originally, I thought that all was absolutely true.

The English Patient came out before In the Skin of a Lion. The latter may be considered a prequel to the former. I would recommend reading In the Skin of a Lion first. In it we learn about the two characters Hana and Caravaggio. Both turn up again in The English Patient. I think I would have found them more interesting had I known of their earlier experiences.

The audiobook is narrated by Tom McCamus. I have given the narration performance four stars. It is clear and easy to follow, but different intonations are not used for different characters. You must listen to the words for an indication of who is talking. You cannot even hear if the person peaking is male or female; women and men sound the same. This was of little importance to me, but others may object.

Ondaatje draws a tale that has captivated me. It does demand attention. The reader follows different characters and there are time shifts, but one’s efforts are rewarded. This is a fine tale; one that I thoroughly enjoyed. The writing is splendid.

Books I have read by Michael Ondaatje:
In the Skin of a Lion 4 stars
The English Patient 4 stars
Anil's Ghost 4 stars
Running in the Family 3 stars
Divisadero 3 sars

Warlight TBR
Profile Image for Fabian.
956 reviews1,623 followers
April 3, 2021
Best piece of fiction I've read this (crappy?) year (2020). The primary feeling this novel inspires is: Love isn't the most important thing in the world. The complexities of LIFE are more profound, sad, and... satisfying. This may be a revolutionary statement, a great hypothesis, and the novel is magic.
It has so much action and so much poetry: far-flung lovers (not an Ever After, but a Right Now [Since we are human, Connection is SO IMPORTANT! ...and we all get forgotten if not for history]); water tunnel explosions! human puppets on stage! nuns that jump from bridges! A prison escape in guise of a heavenly blue!; a live-or-die logging company...in Canada! In craft, the novel is like something out of PUIG (yes, Ill even mention the exact novel: Heartbreak Tango) in that it contains the poet's roving eye which captures a very democratic world for the protagonists (almost always a man and two women who inherently captivate him) in that the moment in history is finite, and so all people are worthy of having their stories told. Mr. Ondaatje is nothing if not a master storyteller. He is elemental, like Graham Greene, and speaks of action with such a precise use of his poetics (The English Patient is--gasp--a smaller pleasure, than this!) like a classic writer, a Joseph Conrad that extends his narrative in vast, electrifying always surprising ways! A must!
Profile Image for Maciek.
567 reviews3,410 followers
September 7, 2023
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, formed and shaped the city into a vibrant multicultural metropolis that it is now. They had only their hopes and dreams, but they also had the will and strength to make them real. The hard labor of these men and women is directly responsible for the creation of countries that have since developed and prospered, but the very people who made them are mostly unmentioned and forgotten by history.

Ondaatje's novel is fiction, but filled with real events which took place in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada during that time: the construction of the Prince Edward Viaduct between Bloor Street and Danforth Avenue; suppression of workers strikes and demonstrations by the police chief Dennis Draper; the murders of Viljo Rosvall and Janne Voutilainen, two Finnish-Canadian labor unionists, and the mysterious disappearance of Ambrose Smalls - a famous theare magnate who owned several venues across Ontario, and whose disappearance was never solved (even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was involved in it at one time, but ultimately chose not to pursue the case). Oondaatje apparently spent months in the City of Toronto archives to research material for the novel - and the best part is that a lot of material has been digitized and can be accessed online here, allowing us to see Toronto's history for ourselves - including the earliest known photographs of the city.

Ondaatje introduces several characters, some of which will appear again in his later novel, The English Patient. Sometimes their stories touch and correlate and sometimes they don't, dissolving like wisps of spider silk in the early morning sunlight. I suspect that years from now it will be difficult for me to remember the details of the novel, but what will stay with me are the images Ondaatje manages to conjure swiftly and without any real effort: a group of Scandinavian immigrants skating across a frozen river in a small town in Northern Ontario, defying its wilderness and iciness; wind throwing off a nun from an unfinished bridge, and a brave builder who risks his life to save her; a man escaping from prison and into the country, staying by himself in remote lakeside houses, the silence and vastness of the area having an almost preternatural quality. Is this how pioneers felt?

Like many immigrants the novel searches for its own goal but doesn't find it, leaving us with a collection of brief insights into the lives of its characters and surrounding. Still, Ondaatje in places writers well enough to warrant an extra star, and I look forward to reading more of his work.
Profile Image for Alison.
426 reviews62 followers
January 27, 2010
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 night. The hard ice was so certain, they could leap into the air and crash down and it would hold them. their lanterns replaces with new rushes which let them go further past boundaries, speed! romance! one man waltzing with his fire. . . ."

And thus it begins. Dancing with the elements. A wind catching the skirts of a young nun and sending her spinning out into the air and into the arms of a daredevil bridge builder. Great explosions underwater and on land. Escape through water and betrayal by it. So much of this book exists on the perilous edge between something fear and whimsy. I've certainly never found any other book in which the acts of destruction felt so balletic.

Nuns,actresses, missing millionaires, orphan girls, burglars, radicals, immigrants and great marvels of engineering. For a slim book that often reads like poetry, there's an awful lot going on here. You hardly know where to look. And it is absolutely exquisite.
Profile Image for Teresa.
Author 8 books815 followers
August 3, 2011
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 probably would've felt like an outsider no matter where he ended up, such was his upbringing and outlook.

Be patient with this book if the beginning seems a bit slow or meandering. You will be hugely rewarded. As one of the quotes I've marked from this says: 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.

And as I neared the end and realized where we were headed, I also realized I'd forgotten where we started, because in between -- how we get from the beginning to the end -- is a dazzling feast, and feat.
Profile Image for ·Karen·.
617 reviews767 followers
August 3, 2011
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.

Actually, The English Patient is one of the few books in my reading life that I never finished. I don't think I ever really took note of the book until the film came out, so it must have been 1996, when we had just moved back to Germany from Austria, because I have a clear memory of trying to read it in bed on a mattress on the floor. With moving and coping with all that entails, I know I was only reading a few pages in bed at night before falling into a coma. After three weeks of this where it seemed to me that nothing whatever had happened, I gave up. I was amazed at how political In the Skin of a Lion is, I had Ondaatje down in my mind as a somewhat artsy poetic type that uses a lot of words to skirt the ineffable. How wrong I was.
Profile Image for Kaelee.
20 reviews2 followers
July 23, 2010
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 one. This felt to me like Ondaatje had a lot of beautiful images in his head that he wanted to string together, but had no cohesive, workable story, so instead, he opted for the pastiche of past and present, from the perspectives of a dozen different people, so he could get them out but hide the fact that the story was weak.

Profile Image for Deanna.
942 reviews53 followers
September 11, 2020
There were lots of levels of experiencing this novel. It was a hypnotic and powerful read by a wonderfully talented writer. That felt like 4 stars.

While it never ever feels like you’re reading description, at every moment you are not just immersed in but almost physically in a vigorous sensory experience of immediate place and physical experience.

However, the characters felt less like full characters and more like holders of a point to make. And the plot unevenly held my interest.

None of it appealed to me by description, but I was rapt in long sections.

I did tire of several things, though: the lengthy back and forth and extreme scenarios of an obsessive infatuation, the cat and mouse of the rich and famous guy and the tortured soul guy, and finally the pretty extreme physical beating almost every male body takes, multiple times and for multiple reasons, with a look-how-tough and walk-it-off result most of the time.

That’s a lot of issues written down against short praise, but the experience of this writing, the Canadian setting, and sections of the book where I really did care about characters and what happened mean this is actually a strong 4 stars for me.

Earlier this year I picked up his Warlight in an airport, got about halfway through it during the trip, and then lost track of the book. I was enjoying it and it comes back to me and I miss the story. The book will show up or I’ll get another one.
Profile Image for Laure.
134 reviews68 followers
February 16, 2017
Despite the poetic language, this was quite a quick read. I will re read it again though as the language is complex and there are things that still do not make totally sense in my head. This is will not be a chore as the language is beautiful and eminently evocative. I wish the plot and characters' motivation had not been so difficult to fathom at times, lost is some land of magical realism. Great book still.
Profile Image for Dax.
251 reviews118 followers
January 18, 2023
Here we have the familiar fragmented narrative style that has become Ondaatje's calling card. Written a few years before his magnum opus, this novel shows a writer that has not quite blossomed into his full potential. This novel works pretty well and has some pretty imagery (the Swedes skating the river with burning cattails comes to mind) but it doesn't reach the heights of it's more famous sibling.

The other slight issue here is that the story of Patrick's evolution into an anarchist just isn't as interesting as the story of 'The English Patient'. If I could do it over again, I would have read 'In the Skin of a Lion' before reading 'The English Patient'. While you don't need to have read the former to enjoy the latter, 'Skin of a Lion' introduces us to characters such as Caravaggio and Hana and also helps fill in a few blanks in some of the passages in 'English Patient'. A worthy read; strong three stars.
Profile Image for Marie.
936 reviews78 followers
July 10, 2009
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 passages I found intriguing--notably the ones about the workers building the viaduct, tunneling under Lake Ontario, and laboring in the tannery--Ondaatje has a knack for describing the dirtiest and most dangerous sorts of work and helping the reader understand what it is like. Ondaatje is a poet, and some of his writing I found beautiful.

He had a few strong female characters in the story too.

I have a certain amount of tolerance for novelists flitting from one character's perspective to another, or one point of time to another. But this book made me dizzy. I was hoping that I would have a better understanding at the end of how it all fit together.

Many goodreads reviewers describe this book as one of their favorites. It's very arty and avant garde: not really my cup of tea, I suppose.
Profile Image for Czarny Pies.
2,531 reviews1 follower
February 5, 2020
As a parent with two sons who loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (i.e. Michelangelo, Rafael, Donatello and Leonardo) when they were children in the 1990s, I was delighted to discover that the fifth turtle Caravaggio was a character of “In the Skin of a Lion”. In most cases, however, the surprises in this novel dismayed me.
One of the major themes of “In the Skin of Lion” is to portray Toronto’s ethnic minorities during the first four decades of the twentieth century when in the view of Ondaatje, they were culturally alienated and economically alienated. Although Ondaatje is a at least partially correct, his lack of contact with the ethnic groups that he assigns his characters to thoroughly undermines his endeavour. Ondaatje is an arch wasp which is not necessarily a bad thing. It is a label that could be applied to half of my family. However, if one is to write about non-Wasps one needs some familiarity with them. Mere commiseration which is all that Ondaatje has is not enough.
Ultimately Caravaggio, especially in his second avatar in “The English Patient” is a Wasp. I also fond the nominally Macedonian Temelcoff to be very much an Anglo.
“In the Skin of Lion” nonetheless has its charms. Ondaatje fares much better with his Wasp characters. As in other novels, Ondaatje presents an intriguing set of characters who fight the good fight of life and arouse our sympathy when they are inevitably crushed by harshness of this cruel world. Patrick Lewis, the protagonist and professional dynamiter loves passionately but all his loves are unrequited.
Finally, I must note that "In the Skin of a Lion" introduces Hana who will be the leading character of "The English Patient" and for this reason alone is worth reading.
Profile Image for Q.
448 reviews
June 12, 2023
Reread Early March 2023. Prior read July 2006

In the Skin of a Lion is a lyrical historical-fiction novel writen by Michael Ondaatje. It’s set in the 1920’s and 30’s in Canada. I found beauty often in the way he writes and the rhythms of his dialogues and sentences. And all the little details that gave life and depth to the story.

The ways our main character Patrick Lewis learns how to be in the world and develops his craft is by watching his father. There is beauty in their working together. His father teachers not in words but by offering his son experiences. They work in the quiet of the world; In touch with it.

In the beginning of the book Michael Ondaatje creates a stunning sense of place in the once wildness of Canada. Patrick’s first thing each winter morning was to
go to the kitchen window to watch a group of men dressed in the same dark clothes, with axes and lunches attached to their belts go off to work. He wonders each day where they are from and what work they do. This is the start of of documenting the growing immigrant community in Canada and Toronto. He brought alive cultures, different voices and singing and joy together at gatherings.

In the 1920 and 30’s Toronto is building a bridge under and over the lake and when that’s done a waterworks is started. Cheap labor is needed. Immigrants want to work to feed themselves and their families. They are exploited. There are no labor unions yet. Many people die from the work. Haves and have nots. And many of their names unknown. Long days in wretched weather at times. And some getting wet and cold having to entertain the water or work in mud. Patrick Lewis is a dynamite pro he gets paid a dollar a day. Extra sometimes for more set ups. He gets paid more then most people because of his craft. He cares about these people -

One day building the bridge a nun is on it. And she is blown away. It’s a wonderfully written scene. Most of the workers and those who heard the storybdon’t know if she lived or died.
There are other unusual characters in the book. He writes them all differently. The management of the projects do not see the workers or know their names. Michael Ondaaje in small little ways give them a sense of place and life.

Patrick Lewis is rather quiet working. He has 2 love relationships at different times.. Both women were best friends. And very different. His latter love was the mom of a young girl named Hannah. She is a terrific kid. Her mom is an artist -
an actor and dancer. When the book closes Hannah is 16. You might remember her if you read or saw The English Patient movie. She was the nurse who said: “Why is it that everyone I love dies.” We learn a little more about her life and why she said that. Patrick is terrific with her and she him. They are family. He came alive in their company. Giggles and laughter and love.

We have one other character you might remember too. And that is the Caravaggio - the Thief in the English Patient who lost his thumbs. He and Patrick meet in prison.

I am so glad I read this again. I really enjoyed it. I admire Michael Ondaatje story telling and use of language. That was really rich in this his second novel. I have to confess I listened to it on audible. The reader was excellent - he added a lot to the book. It was a very smooth read. However it seemed to be abridged. I didn’t check which I usually do. It seemed different then when I read it the first time in June 2006. Smoother.
421 reviews167 followers
July 27, 2017
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 then, you had books and people winning these literary awards that weren't so self-serious and stuffy and IMPORTANT LITERARY FICTION-y. Stuff like Guy Vanderhaeghe's brilliant short story collection Man Descending (he would win again, post-English Patient, but for The Englishman's Boy, which is IMPORTANT LITERARY FICTION, and exceedingly so), Robert Kroetsch's The Studhorse Man, and a number of other writers like Richler, Wiebe, Robertson Davies etc. who all wrote very good literary fiction without being insufferably self-important and serious.

It's not that this book is bad. It's alright. Occasionally, it's even great, but only occasionally. It just irks me, and a lot of fellow young Canadian readers I know I can speak for, that this kind of thing gets all the attention.
47 reviews11 followers
December 4, 2007
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 fiction. Ondaatje's genius is in the scenes he puts before us, which are almost emblematic of the character's personalities and values. I dare anyone to forget the beauty of the scene when Caravaggio escapes from prison.

Simultaneously a careful character study and a novel of ideas. Ondaatje's best, by far.
Profile Image for Moses Kilolo.
Author 5 books95 followers
August 18, 2013
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 protagonist, the other dominant characters are mostly immigrants, whose lives and toils are described with painstaking detail, but still subtly sensual.

In fact, Patrick ends up feeling like the outsider in a cast of men and women that are ready to make it by whatever means; in a masculine new world that is neither merciful nor apologetic.

Which brings us to the dominant theme. History. And the place of the seemingly insignificant. Ondaatje makes us care for what part that these small people, those who build the cities with their ill remunerated labor, and lost their lives in the course, played in making this history.

It is a book with many pleasures, romantic and poetic in part, and greatly rewarding for anyone who wishes to read some thought provoking stuff. Dig in, with patient and assurance that you'll be rewarded in the end.
January 10, 2018

An exalted language rendered simply. Ondaatje lays down on a wood grained table, an axe, fallen trees, a log jamb, explosives, the building of a bridge and a waterworks. The concrete tools of realism. As he speaks in his mesmerizing words his agile hands tent and curl, through the fingers arise images of a hallucinogenic prose. In short declarative sentences he calls forth the onset of a first LSD trip; the shock of boundaries melting away, the particles of the world slowed and oozing with meaning.

Ondaatje is clearly someone who can create a burning solvent in a lab that steams words beyond their summit of representation and into the scalding approach of what is real.

Profile Image for Predrag St.
42 reviews13 followers
April 16, 2020
Radnja ovog romana je smeštena u Torontu početkom XX veka gde se preduzimaju kapitalni radovi poput izgradnje visećeg mosta, kopanja tunela ispod jezera Ontario za potrebe novog vodovoda, prenos drvene građe rečnim tokovima... Junaci su mahom radnici koji učestvuju u ovim mukotrpnim poslovima, za male naknade rizikujući sopstveno zdravlje i život. Većina njih su imigranti, dosta njih i sa ovih naših balkanskih prostora.
Neke scene su nezaboravne - vetar koji nosi časne sestre preko nezavršenog mosta, veoma domišljato bežanje iz zatvora, sabotaža vodovoda i ronjenje kroz mračni tunel...
Nasuprot ovakvoj surovoj radnji, intezivnim, napetim, nekada i mučnim scenama je jedan veoma lep, nežan, poetski stil pisanja što ovom romanu daje po meni najveću draž i jedinstvenost.
Veoma prijatno iznenađenje.
P. S. Čitanje sinopsisa ove knjige može vas samo dovesti u zabludu o kakvom je romanu reč.
Profile Image for Mattia Ravasi.
Author 5 books3,551 followers
January 27, 2015
This 'humble epic' about Canada's working class in the early twentieth century is a memento to their sacrifices and to the injustice of their condition, a book made so much better by its lack of political extremism and by its dry, solemn prose; and it is also a wonderful and heartbreaking love novel.
Profile Image for Michael Livingston.
795 reviews252 followers
July 4, 2020
A glorious, powerful, mesmerising book. The writing is exquisite at a sentence level, and Ondaatje somehow writes both a rich history of working class Toronto and an almost-biblical tale of fate, love and revenge.
Profile Image for Iida.
10 reviews5 followers
May 21, 2013
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 open. There is great attention to detail here, especially when it comes to the construction of bridges and tunnels, but it is beautifully written and wildly realistic. For a novel so deeply rooted in fact, this is a fantastical endeavour. As with The English Patient, Ondaatje flings improbable combinations of people in improbable circumstances into a world that is so richly researched, it feels surreal.

It's not just beautiful imagery and historical accuracy. There are surprises in his writing; two years can pass in a paragraph, a man can go from perfect peace to being literally set on fire, a nun can be saved from certain death, and during the space of hours, she can cut her habit with a pair of shears and leave behind the life she'd known. This is a political novel that encompasses the frenetic construction of Toronto, the harsh winters and glorious summers of the Ontario countryside, the universal struggles of immigrants in a new world; above all it is 200 pages of absolutely sublime writing that somehow captures the pace and the thrill of pivotal moments both in history and in our lives.

This is a novel that needs to be sunk into, slowly and with patience. It is possibly one of the most rewarding books I've ever read.
Profile Image for Ova - Excuse My Reading.
480 reviews363 followers
May 30, 2018
Ondaatje is so talented. This is a slow, stunning read. I was lucky to read a good Turkish translation but would very much love to read the original again.
Profile Image for Emi.
197 reviews9 followers
November 19, 2022
Many times I’ve been asked whether I think I am embarking on a journey that will lead me to a useless degree. An unusable bachelors. Whether I know that there are diplomas that can give me diamonds instead. And for the longest time I had no answer to give but to say that: books are all I have left. But now I know. If someone were to ask again (probably with the intention of feeling better about their own future, why I study the humanities) my answer would simply be: because I am young. I am young and haven’t been acquainted with life yet. I study literature because each day it takes up the task of holding me in the palm of its hands to teach me. About death, the bone-deep chill only found in prison basements, love, the unspeakably domestic act of peeling clementines for someone, birth, rebirth, and betrayal. I catalogue all these teachings to protect my lungs, guard my heart, and harden my ribs. It is not, like some would say, an endless preparation to discuss hypotheticals and theory. It is practical knowledge. It betters the world. It betters the individual. It trains one. The ways to hold your love, when to hold your tongue. Unfortunately for me, it means that my studies will appear so much more the emotional task to me now. And Ondaatje’s book made me realize that. I want to eat this book; chew it’s words and hold them under my tongue. I’m losing my mind.

The perspective this novel takes on was not one that I would have normally reached for. I suppose this is the only good thing to come out of my Canadian Literature class so far. The city of Toronto has by no means a secret history. But the way that Ondaatje’s tells it, feels like being welcomed into his living room to hear a humble family history.

The novel lets us see the birth of Toronto through the eyes of the immigrant construction workers that built it. It depicts the bloody history behind the construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct (that you use every day when the Subway passes from Braodview and Castle Frank Station) as well as the R.C. Harris Water Plant Treatment Centre that sits on Queen St. East. It sheds light on the exploitation of immigrants, the godly powers of city officials, and how expensive civilian unrest can be. Although the lives of the workers have been fictionalized, a number of events in the novel are historically accurate. A nun did fall from the Viaduct before its completion, multi-theatre owner, Ambrose Small, did disappear, and the murder of two labour union organizers at the time was an unfortunate reality. The plot is infused with desire, parties, and lust for life. It features first-time robbers and part-time assassins. The workers lead colourful lives. And… well, they’re human. That’s kind of the point, right?

The cast is just as interesting. We have:
- Patrick Lewis: narrator and son of a dynamiter
- R.C. Harris: Commissioner of Public Works
- Ambrose Small: owner of many theatres in Ontario
- Theresa Kormann: prohibitionist, actress, and Small’s wife
- Clara Dickens: Small’s mistress
- Alice Gull: actress and Dickens’ best friend
- Hana Gull: Alice’s daughter
- Caravaggio: a worker
- Giannetta: factory worker and Caravaggio’s wife
- Nicholas Temelcoff: worker
And many more.

To talk about this book would mean to never stop. It’s a puzzling thing that had my lecture of 200 trying to piece it together and failing.

It is work. Rearranging the timeline into the correct order is your homework for the duration of your stay with the text. It is a frustrating endeavour until you remember that the story is told from the perspective of a man driving late into the night, where time isn’t linear and memories swim away. Paired with the unspeakably lyrical prose, it makes the reading experience so incredibly precious. It is a raw child. A bloated stomach on a summer afternoon. Frankly speaking, I did lose the plot half-way through to lap up all scenes between our main protagonists, Patrick Lewis, Alice Gull, and Clara Dickens. And I don’t think you can blame me when the descriptions look like this:

“The water in the saucepan was boiling and they did not move. They stood together feeling each other’s spines, each other’s hair at the back of the neck. Relax, she said, and he wanted to collapse against her, be carried by her into foreign countries, into the ocean, into bed, anywhere. He has been alone too long.” (88)

“He came to believe she had the powers of a goddess who could condemn or bless. She would be able to transform the one she touched, the one she gripped at the wrist with her tough hand, the muscles stiffening up toward the blue-black of the half-revealed creature that pivoted on the bone of her shoulder. His eyes wanted to glimpse nothing else.” (112)

“What remained in the dyers’ skin was the odour that no woman in bed would ever lean towards. Alice lay beside Patrick’s exhausted body, her tongue on his neck, recognizing the taste of him, knowing the dyers’ wives would never taste or smell their husbands again in such a way; even if they removed all pigment and course salt crystal, the men would smell still of the angel they wrestled with in the well, in the pit. Incarnadine.” (132)

“She steps forward to hold him. His cheek on the moist skin under her arm, at the rib, about where they pierced Jesus he thinks. He suddenly falls to his knees. He holds her dress at the thighs as she slips down, slips through the dress so there is a bunched sequin sheath in his hands. The music ceases. A serious pause. They jerk with the swell of waves and he holds her hair from the back.” (226) - though this sounds more romantic out of context…you get the point.

Oh, and… page 205 devoured me.

I could share more of them, but I’d rather keep them my secret.

There are about a million more thoughts zipping through my mind after flipping the last page; none of them are good enough for an essay.
1. Caravaggio (not the painter) is always shrouded in darkness, only experiencing intense moments of subjugation in contrast. He is muse and painter. His effect was imprinted on the rest of the cast, giving them all one overexposed focal point as they are about to advance the plot.
2. Water. Water is everywhere. Revolutions ebb and flow in its tides. People die in waters, committed crimes with its help, escaped prisons by painting themselves a fresh hue of blue. Water is power. Perhaps even a character in and of itself. Cutting off its supply “brings a city to its knees.” (214). Ask the Romans. They would know.
3. An entire chapter gave off the smell of Gaston Leroux. I could swear I was reading the Phantom of the Opera for two dozen pages. But this isn’t Ulysses and it is not authored by James Joyce, so I’m not quite sure what I read… but I could taste a shift in style.
4. Ondaatje casually mentioned that T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral opened in England at that time. It caused me to crack open my annotated copy for half an hour in search for clues.
5. Diogenes was quoted
6. Toasts were dedicated to H.G. Wells
7. Patrick Lewis asking for the commissioner of public works to turn. off. the. light. right as he is about to kill him?? Othello. Final answer. And I do not care how dodgy the connection is.
8. Not to mention the title itself comes from the Epic of Gilgamesh.

For some, the randomness of the above might be off-putting. But to me it meant that I was never bored, always entertained. Genres collide. It is expertly done.

Needless to say, I am still digesting. This was one last feast before hibernation. The tangy prose will stick to my insides for the rest of winter. And I don’t know what it will do to me.
Profile Image for Shauna .
1,238 reviews
June 24, 2009
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 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 here, very faint, very human.' Meander if you want to get to town."

This book is a chaotic tumble of events, and the author tries to be the "best art" bringing order to it all, but I'm not sure if it works entirely for me. Though there are moments....
Profile Image for Sarah.
15 reviews
December 21, 2008
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 work I find so intuitive and organic. He makes even the most absurd things beautiful (e.g. pouring milk all over someone's arm, mouth-to-mouth semen exchange).

This is the novel that made me fall in love with Ondaatje's writing. I love the sense of awe and mystery, of being on the outside, of making discoveries. Epic romantic films with Ralph Fiennes aside, Ondaatje's writing is top notch, and it doesn't get better than this one.
Profile Image for ♛ may.
806 reviews3,832 followers
November 16, 2016

If you were to ask me what this book was about, I wouldn't be able to answer you. Literally, 90% of this book didn't make sense to me.

Fortunately, (or maybe unfortunately) I'm not obliged to write a review about it since I only read it for school. - I would have DNFed it ages ago if I could. :p

Kay, byeeeee.

2 stars!
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