Michael Ondaatje’s The Skin of the Lion is a beautiful, aching, unsentimental story on workers: disparate lives exploding apart and coming together to start and end in a night time drive across Canada to pick up an old lover. This is a love poem, tracking the changes and movement in their lives; the loss and pure peaceful contentment that shape and push them.
This book was recommended to me, and having been unenthusiastic about Ondaatje’s The English Patient, this book shamefully languished on my to-read pile for too long. I have now consumed and been utterly consumed by The Skin of the Lion: I paused, I relished, I wanted to read out excerpts to those around me but stopped myself in case the emotional hit it gave me wasn’t shared. I wanted everyone to understand how good this book was, but I held it to myself because it was just so special, it needs to be read and understood and shared to be appreciated fully.
In an almost short-story style novel, Ondaatje weaves the life of Patrick Lewis, drawing us his character in an image-laden pitch as a youth in the logging forests of Canada. We veer off toward Toronto, the construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct, and the communities of unrecognised, uncounted workers who came from Italy, Macedonia, all over the world, to shape modern Canada. From here, with beauty and violence, the story explodes apart and reshapes, pulling and pushing the characters apart.
There is a line in the middle of the novel, “The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.”. This could not sum up Ondaatje’s approach better: the disparate, haunting images patch and layer over one another, and before we realise have created a complete story, dazzling with its simplicity and importance.
This is an exquisite piece of writing: blurring whatever lines there may be in style and form between poem and novella. But it is not all pretty images and nice feelings. There is a harshness to this world, and the way of functioning through it and in it is captured in a raw, simple prose. The extremes of the weather, the abuse of physical labour, the stark realities of life as a labourer and living within without a community, the solace you find in love and passion and family.
I loved this book. To say more here is to risk not doing it justice, and already I am concerned this review does not capture just what an incredible book this is. Form, structure, style, story, characters, plot, narrative, purpose: all are important and well done and can be savoured in the masterful handling by Ondaatje. Read this book, savour it, keep those images, appreciate how what this book is about has been communicated to you.