Michael Ondaatje is a poet and In The Skin of a Lion is beautifully poetic. The writing is non-linear. At times, the jumps in time caught me off guard and I would have to re-read a section to catch my bearings. I wasn’t sure, at first, how I felt about the jumps in time, I thought it would interrupt or confuse, but I found myself pulled along by the poetry of the storytelling. I didn’t even mind needing to stop and sort out the plot.
My favorite part of the story was Ondaatje’s portrayal of the beauty in work. I grew up in a family of construction workers and farmers and I always saw a strong beauty in their labor. Ondaatje shows the grime, the work, the sweat, the precision, the human in the work. In one of my favorite passages, he describes the dyers of leather in such beauty and color that I could imagine a painting of them. He doesn’t glorify the worker but just makes the beauty and human visible.
Ondaatje also does a powerful job of portraying the immigrant and the role of language. At one point Patrick, the main character, walks through the streets not sharing the language. The power of silence, the power of shared languages like laughter, the power of culture is shown in Ondaatje’s writing. The immigrant is shown as the heart of the city and the outsider blended as one. This portrayal felt honest without bitterness and loving without false optimism.
I can’t recommend this book saying that you will love it. I can see how it could be hated or loved until the pages wear thin. I forsee a second reading in my future and when I read it, I will drink whiskey flavored tea. In The Skin of a Lion doesn’t shy away from the grit of life and whiskey flavored tea always suits that attitude well.