Michael Ondaatje is a Canadian gem. He is most known for The English Patient but I was introduced to Ondaatje by way of In the Skin of a Lion, a lesser known novel and yet the one that made me fall in love with this poetic author. At nine or ten years old in a Goodwill rifling through used romance pulp paperbacks, I came across this book. Hiding between brightly coloured front covers was Ondaatje’s name on a dull, blurry grey photo of a man in a tunnel holding a lunch box. Back then, I was only left with impressions of a love story, of a prison escape, and of a nun falling from a bridge. I was too young to understand it.
It was forgotten, left on my shelf collecting dust, until one of my courses called Toronto’s Multicultural Literatures (ENG271) had the same book on its syllabus. It is the re-read that makes Ondaatje so enticing. His poetics weave intricate stories together with nearly invisible threads. And once the reader is convinced there is no way to understand Ondaatje’s dense language, he pulls the singular connecting thread and brings his vision into focus. However, sometimes it takes mandatory course reading to remember how special some authors are.
The story is set in a burgeoning 1920’s and 30’s Toronto. It follows the labourers of the city, the bridgebuilders, brick and tar layers, and the tannery men and women in factories. It brings these labourers into the world of yachts and fancy waterfront hotels, and into the dreams of a self-made millionaire city planner. There are arsonists, anarchists, thieves, murderers, and dynamiters. It ties together immigrants from Italy, from Finland, and from Macedonia. It takes you under the city to see men chipping away at stone to create tunnels. Love stories are witnessed with a mixture of devastation and pure beauty. And it presents an intimate imagining of a sprawling mosaic population creating the identity of Toronto.
What makes this book so special, and why Ondaatje is one of the greatest Canadian novelists, is that in the middle of a sweeping story that encompasses an entire city, he depicts smaller scenes that remind the reader of how each little story is part of the intricate fabric of a city’s myth.