Divisadero opens with a stark image of 20th Century farming in America: a hard-working man, his children, the farm hand. Riding the slopes in the early morning mist, the confronting sensuousness of the work and exhaustion. Emotions seem to be a luxury that cannot be afforded; there is no need to indulge. Nothing is ever said as much, there is no need. There is a beauty to their harsh reality, a simplicity in their life forced through necessity of their life on the last.
This opening is the story of Anna, her father, her sister Claire, and Cooper the farm hand. Later, the woman formerly known as Anna is in France, an archivist delving into and living within an old author’s world.
This is a story of orphans; real and imagined. Divided, in three parts, about two different groups of three people. This description makes it sound more structured than it actually feels, but it is a patterning that reveals itself to us, a creeping up of feeling and you realise part way through the way Ondaatje has brought a common theme into this completely new context.
Ondaatje’s writing allows him to cover so much in a single breath. I found myself re-reading sentences to both relish their impact, and ensure I had fully captured all the possibilities:
“You live within the crucible of a family long enough and you attach yourself to what you gaze on as a boy or a girl, some logic might say to explain what took place on that deck, in the silence…a silence as if no other life was being lived. // Neither one of them had made a move before the other. It felt as if one heartbeat was at work.”
This precedes the ultimate, dividing event in Anna’s, Claire’s and Cooper’s lives. They ricochet off away from one another, irredeemably. But there was romance in that moment, in their breath, on the deck. It is an awful, beautiful moment.
As I have written before, Ondaatje is a poet, and he brings this poetry to his prose. Divisadero is romantic without any sentimentality, and deeply tragic. It is uncomfortable at times, the intensity and feverishness of his writing about love. The story is intricate and traumatic, haunting and beautiful. Complicated lives, woven together, effortlessly relayed through this poet’s storytelling. The emotional impact of his characters’ lives is stunning, leaving you haunted, breathless at the residual echo they leave in your memory.
A preoccupation with the environment, and its influence on our world, seems to pervade his characters’ world. Growing up on a farm, living in the South of France, the world breathes around them through the cyclical seasons, the freak Californian snow storm, the rise and fall of rivers, the food they eat, the insects living their own lives around them, the horse underneath them. There is a quiet intelligence, this acknowledgement on how the outside world shapes them; how much they can control.
Divisadero is a street in San Francisco, crossing multiple suburbs; it was previously a divider between the city of San Francisco and The Presidio. Anna briefly mentions this, as a street she once lived on, and it is the perfect, subtle, allegory for the division, the separation, the coming together, that happens in this book. Ondaatje again gives us beguiling poetic prose, constructing a quietly perfect story.