Sunday, August 26, 2007

#55 - Divisadero

Like so many of these reviews, sometimes it's necessary to start with a confession. There are no limits to my admiration for Michael Ondaatje's work. He's one of my favourite living writers. In the Skin of the Lion remains one of my all-time favourite books, right up there in the top ten at least. One night, when I was still slaving away at the worst job ever, even before I ended up at the evil empire with the boss from hell, I managed to get a free ticket to hear him read at Harbourfront. That night inspired me in ways that few other readings ever have. I came home, haunted by the sound of his voice, and wrote a prose poem called "Bittersweet". When I showed it to a creative writing teacher who actually knew Ondaatje, she sent him a copy, and I've still got the note he sent back—in fact, the thin scrawl telling her it was a 'lovely piece' sits on my desk to this day.

It's hard then to critique Divisadero from any where other than the pedestal of this affection I feel for a man I have clearly never met. The pure skill he has in crafting every single sentence, of creating characters that are broken and blue even before they are born, and of drawing a reader in as purely as one craves the sun, are uncompromising in this novel, even if the book itself might not necessarily be as successful as either The English Patient or In the Skin of a Lion. But how am I judging the success of the book? Much like Kerry, I felt a little bit lost as the tenuous threads of the novel hold two very different, yet equally complex stories together.

The first half of the story deals with how a tragic act of violence breaks up a patched together family in northern California. The two girls, Anna and Claire, sisters in every way except blood, are split apart forever, and Coop, a farm-hand who grew up on the farm since he was four, is chased away from the only home he has ever known. As they splinter, the novel removes itself from their primary narrative, and unfolds into the story of a Lucien Segura, a French writer at the turn of the century, who Anna studies as she lives in his house and sleeps with his neighbour (who he had known when he was just a boy, obviously), and whose tragedies (the loss of a great love, the splintering of family) echo those of her own.

Yet, by the end, I craved more about Coop, Anna, and Claire, somehow knowing that might be the point, that there was no more of this story for me to know. That the author, in firm control at all times, needed to explore tragedy in a different light halfway around the world from where he began, realizing that these are common themes that hold humanity together: loss, love, language. And wondering how it all fits together in ways that might not make entire sense to me right now, might just be the very point that I'm missing.

Regardless, it's a bloody beautiful book with prose that soars and touches you in ways that only he knows how to do, where prose melts with poetry, where longing remains far after the love has passed, and where two entirely different stories, narratives, and characters can fit together in one book as if they had meant to be that way all along.

I've added Michael Ondaatje to my Around the World in 52 Books challenge as the Sri Lanka entry, regardless of the fact that this book is set mainly in California and in France, and he's lived in Canada for over 40 years, that's where he was born, and those are the self-imposed rules of my challenge. Maybe that's wrong of me to organize the challenge in that way but I've started it along those lines and am committed to finishing!

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: I love the photo on the cover of this book so much that taking another picture of a book on my bed wouldn't be remotely as interesting as imagining the woman lying there on a bench in an old French kitchen, bread, cheese, tea, pen nearby, creating a world that I am as desperate to know as any I have imagined in my reading life.


Kimberly said...

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Ondaatje is the god of my literary idolatry. While the first impression of the book left me feeling somewhat the same (wanting more of the story of Coop and the sisters), the whole notion of a disjointed universal interconnectedness sort of resonated with me. Divisadero is one of those books that will require re-reading though, I imagine, in order to squeeze more meaning out of the text.

Anonymous said...

Terrific review. I thought the book ravishing. No one writes prose like this!

Heather said...

Great review! I'm even more anxious to move this book to the top of my TBR Mountain! Why aren't there more reading hours in my day??!!

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