“In the Skin of a Lion” You Are a Red-Lipped Hound

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

Screen shot 2013-05-10 at 9.59.06 PMYou know it’s bad when you’re sticky-noting the white brim of library book pages.  The book in its plastic trench and my pink hang-nails hanging out.

With Michael Ondaatje, I would say most readers have a love/hate relationship.  His books are always at the pace of which you would suck and teethe a wheat pick.  By the end you feel thankful that you made it through the heap and somehow it was worth it.  There’s a twinge of you in every book he writes.  Somehow he knows just what to write to make each reader feel like they’ve been touched in the shadows.  I started with Ondaatje for The English Patient which is a hell of a book.  There are no other words for it.  It was dark, but beautiful and chaotic, but quiet, and sensitive, but brutish.  It was just this book of binaries that makes the reader feel like they’ve just been strangled.

In the Skin of a Lion – Michael Ondaatje

I’m not sure why I thought, “Yes, let’s do Ondaatje again” when I was in the library.  The English Patient was a very difficult read.  I didn’t particularly like the time I spent with it, but afterwords I felt like I needed it.  I went originally to get a volunteer application for this summer and happened to walk through…oops, every isle of the fiction section and pull out numerous books, placing them back almost-correctly.  If I don’t leave blank space when I pull it down to read a page, there’s no hope for my broken dewey decimal heart to put the book in the right place.

It must have been the cover.  It has two nude people in a bed, but there’s cooled coffee on the table behind them, each cup holding a spoon.  It’s as if the passion was too much, but it’s not erotica.  The people are entwined in the position of dreaming sleep.

I don’t regret it.  I sat here all night listening to Hoarders in the background, finishing off this book about the heat of thievery and matters of the heart.  Michael Ondaatje seems to weave the  mundane and the delicious so well in his stories.

A heron stretching his head further underwater, the eyes open within the cold flow, open for the fish that could be then raised into the air and dropped moving in the tunnel of the heron’s blue throat.

While herons are an easy bird to find majestic because as they grow older, they grow beards, it’s just one of the most beautiful eating images that I’ve ever read.  He makes me want to plunge my head into creek water.  The novel is all about fishing and water as well.  The reader must take the oars and paddle out to the center of the lake leaving the hook in the poetic glory of the words and wait for sudden feeling.  As a reader you want to keep swimming, but not because the pace is quick or it’s an easy-read but because there’s mystery within the story without it being a detective novel.

Strachan Avenue storm sewer, 1913 @ City of Toronto Archives

At the heart of the novel is one man’s path at finding himself.  It begins and ends with Patrick in the car with his daughter.  They have awoken in the middle of the night to drive cross-country and are telling stories.  Like any good road trip, the stories are fantastic, but believable.  They feel like memories that are passed down by generations.  Stories you’ve heard so much from your mother, from her mother’s mother, that you start to believe them as your own.  Of course it’s true that your grandfather fought a gang of Italians in WWII and because of that came back to the Ford Plant and Friday night’s cashed checks at the bar.

These are the stories that people carry.  They aren’t legends, but they’re the climbing branches of the family tree.  How will we know what we are without these memories?  I’ve asked this before.  They may be painted with the names of different countries, or surrounded by water, but they are our own memories and we raise them as our own.

When I read Philip Roth, I was mesmerized by the glove terminology of the factory.  When I read Ondaatje, I was mesmerized by the way things were built and created in the early 20th century.  Into the start of the novel, men carry steamed breath in the winter and ax’s to load timber.  They don’t know where they are, but it is winter and they are cutting lumber for the owners.  A father and son watch them walk from their bunkhouses to the steep woods of pine trees and in the end the father goes to work for the company.  He begins by building explosives to get trunks from piling up in the river and creating a dam.  The way this technology is told; how the father builds the explosives, the way the trunk’s swing into the air and scar the banks of the river.  I never thought I would be interested in that.

Construction Workers, Bloor Street Viaduct @ City of Toronto Archives

He describes building a bridge and the way the men ride ropes down to their terminal to cement or harness.  How a water viaduct is built by the hands of displaced men and history gives its ownership to the bulbous rich who name it and put up the money.  There’s the feldspar mines, and the idea that thieves are made for love.  I didn’t even know what feldspar was before reading this book and yet it sits in the soft white of my mother’s china cabinet.

Kate’s Literary Tour of Canada. Bloor Street Viaduct

Part of the tension in this novel is the pounding uprising of the working-class immigrants of Toronto, Canada.  This is going to make me seem really dumb, but I always assumed Canada was a country of freedom from the beginning.  History is told in the eyes of the winner and I never thought that the immigrant experience in Canada could be so unfair.  The rich owner, Harris has been using Macedonian’s from all over the city to fix the darkest corners of his dream architecture.  He doesn’t lift a finger from his fat office, but watches men dipped under ground into the caves of feldspar.  Men are expected to live with the duty of near-death.  Some work at the tannery factory and dip themselves in dye, so fully, just for a dollar-a-day.  They don’t last more than six months ever says the author.  Of course, dyed to their necks, becoming wholly new everyday.  Going from a father or an important family gentlemen to a man dipped in color for the pocket watch of a businessman.  It’s strange the way the world divides people, but it must in the way it runs.  This novel had me from the moment a blurred nun is saved by a viaduct worker after slipping off the edge of the bridge.  His arm out of socket, his harness tight-roped at the lip of the bridge, cradling the woman in the brown habit from certain death.

Slant of Moon on a Lake

There’s a way that authors can write about things that we just would never think about.  Ondaatje must sit in the cubicle of a library and wind his way through history books in order to write the intricacies of architecture.  Somehow, mines of feldspar and the lowering of donkeys into the darkness by harness and whines becomes a metaphor for strength.  I just love the way that everything small connects to the bigger picture until again we are riding in a car through the night with a father and daughter who are telling each other the only stories a father and daughter can share, those of memory.  Whether that memory is true, or half-true, or not true at all, it’s a memory that our brains have guarded.  A memory like the slant of moon on a lake, the only pore for a late-night writer’s hand.

11 thoughts on ““In the Skin of a Lion” You Are a Red-Lipped Hound

  1. libletters says:

    Cassie – I love this book so much! I consider it his best one – although I love his poetry even more (have you read There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do?) After I read it the first time, I kept looking up all the Toronto landmarks he mentions – and every time I take the TTC east to the Danforth, I think about the bridge!

    • Cassie says:

      Ah! I’m kind of jealous you know the landmarks. I’ve only ever been to the Toronto airport and so I haven’t seen any of the City, but I would love to after reading that book! I am totally going to get that poetry collection you mention. It’s bad that I didn’t even know he wrote poetry! AHHH! I’m going to look online for it right now.

  2. The Other Watson says:

    Ahhh, you really hit the nail on the head so well with the way that Ondaatje writes! Even the feelings you’ve had about him, I was exactly the same – I read The English Patient in about two days, and felt like I was dreamily pulled through it by some force I didn’t know, and at the end thought “that was brilliant, but that’s enough by this author.” But then a friend mentioned In The Skin Of A Lion, and I found myself pulled to it, and loved reading it even though it was such a strange read at points. I now have The Cat’s Table, his latest book, sitting on my shelf waiting for me to read it…
    Brilliant review (I have never managed to find the words to properly discuss Ondaatje, but you’ve done it perfectly!). :)

    • Cassie says:

      Ah! I’m go glad. I had the same problem as you when I tried to review The English Patient. There wasn’t a way to explain how to even begin reading that book. I haven’t read anything else by him but I hear good things about The Cat’s Table which is where I think I will go next since the library has it. : ) Thank you for all the kind words!

  3. Let's CUT the Crap! says:

    Cassie, this is one of your best reviews. Your passion and admiration shine through. I haven’t read this one but I have it on my shelf. I promise to read it as soon as I finish my current book.
    I haven’t read any of his poetry but he has more than one collection. I found The Cat’s Table an easier read than Anil’s Ghost and I didn’t have trouble reading The English Patient. I had already seen the movie, but when my sister bought tickets to see him in Stratford, I wanted to read the book to get it signed..

    • Cassie says:

      Oh man, thank you so much! I’m just not ever sure how he wrote these books. There’s so much in one little novel. I haven’t read The Cat’s Table or Anil’s Ghost, but I plan to read The Cat’s Table soon since that seems to be one a lot of people have read. I can’t believe you hear him speak – was he anything like his books?

  4. Bea says:

    Great review, and it sounds like a great author, especially as you and some have described, that he pulls his readers into the book. I noticed you were looking for a volunteer position. It sounds like a good spot for you.

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