In The Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, 1987, 256 pages
Hey babes! This week we’re reading In The Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje! This beautiful, poetic little book was nominated for a Governor General’s award in 1987, and won Canada Reads in 2002 – the very first year! All the summaries of this book are terrible, but here we go anyway:
“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.”
Roisin: Oh girl, let me tell you: I read this book last year when it was recommended by a guy I was talking to on Tinder. He said it was the last book he read and I picked it up, read it in literally a day and a half and loved it. When we finally met later that week, he tells me he read it in high school. And I was like, “Wait, the last book you read was in high school?”
(Reader, I dated him)
That synopsis is really failing us all as readers, this book is about so many things and fits a whole bunch of adventures of both Patrick and other characters he meets into a languid, lovely, decades spanning novel that feels epic but is not a saga in any way.
Kathleen: Girl that is THRILLING (the Tinder story, not the shitty description). Apparently some of the characters from The English Patient are in this one, but I have never read it because it’s totally a book FOR MOMS ONLY (I think because it’s one of the books I have a strong memory of my mom reading?).
The story seems a bit fragmented at first, but by the end the different stories are all beautifully woven together. There are some stylized moments, but he never goes so far that I had a hard time following what was going on, and everything was poetic and beautiful. One of the most quoted lines in the book is ‘The first sentence of every novel should be: “Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.”’ AND THAT’S JUST WHAT THIS BOOK IS LIKE OH SHIT IT’S LIKE ONDAATJE WAS TALKING ABOUT HIMSELF??
I get weird second-hand embarrassment when I read books that are set in Toronto because they really labour the point – we get it, there is an important setting on Yonge Street! This didn’t happen to me at ALL reading with this book though – I found it very engaging, and everything seemed more real because everything was occurring in locations that are familiar to me. Also, I had never considered now annoying the dang ravine would have been before they built the bridge over the Don Valley?
Roisin: Much like Elaine, I have no time for The English Patient but maybe I will read it because I super loved In the Skin of a Lion. It was atmospheric in a way I love. It felt sweaty and humid and dusty. It was so immersive that in the scenes in the downtown fire escapes I felt gross and sweaty and sleepy and ready to lie down on the grass in Riverdale park and eat an ice cream. That might just be where I sat when reading it though so that might be a real memory not a sense memory. (Also love the shoutout to my old street, probably the only time that short three blocks is mentioned in fiction)
If I can mention one more super specific setting reference: the description of a mushroom farm is so weird and strange and perfect! And I love anything written with the rhythms of a really good heist that makes the reader feel like they’re in on it.
Kathleen: I LOVE THAT OUR STREET WAS IN IT TOO OH MY GOD. Also my brother worked on a mushroom farm very close to where the farm in the book was located? SPOOKY.
VERDICT: Should it be on the 30 before 30?
Roisin: Yeah! This is the only Ondaatje book I’ve read and as soon as we’re done this list I promise I’ll read more.
Kathleen: Absolutely, this book was great. I read Billy the Kid in uni and I’ll send it to you, boo.
NEXT WEEK’S BOOK: Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findley