In the Skin of a Lion

by Michael Ondaatje

I needed this. It’s easy to feel a bit low after coming away from a couple books disappointed when I originally approached them with high hopes. While I may be repeating myself here slightly, my mood turns around fairly quickly after reading something thoroughly enjoyable, and it becomes doubly satisfying when I also walk away with an understanding of base techniques helping to make a somewhat complex narrative effective in its delivery. (And it’s interesting to me that both In the Skin of a Lion and Everything is Illuminated, the last book that left me feeling this way, came highly recommended by one of Thunder Bay’s most talented authors. Someone takes something away from the masters he reads.)

When attempting to create a synopsis for In the Skin of a Lion, I worry that it will either come across as an insubstantial story or something will be spoiled. It’s more or less about one man, Patrick Lewis, and his history in Toronto in the ’20s and ’30s––the jobs he worked (tracking down a missing millionaire, tunnelling under Lake Ontario) and the relationships he developed––presented as a story by Patrick to a young girl in order to provide context for a rare and vibrant love. But Ondaatje doesn’t keep within the rigid confines such a concept may invoke, zooming outside Patrick’s frame of understanding to focus in on the lives of those around him, and this is the aspect of In the Skin of a Lion that I’d point to in order to explain a great deal of its appeal to me. The author vividly describes his characters and their personalities, down to fine mannerisms, effectively making them come alive. Adding in clear, strong imagery allowing us to follow them into specific moments creates a sense of real people populating a vibrant world. All this comes together to help give the narrative weight, and it’s so satisfying to me when this happens, when an author can bring so much feeling and meaning to simple statements without needing to pause and underline the significance to the reader.

The thing is, a lot of what makes a book like In the Skin of a Lion effective in its telling is relatively quiet, muted. In full honesty, even by the two-thirds mark, I was thinking that, while a very strong study in characterization, Ondaatje’s narrative left a lot to be desired. But then the interconnectedness of the various pieces began to present itself and the significance of what we’d experienced bubbled its way to the surface, and I was impressed. My biggest point of dissatisfaction is a sense that we left characters too soon after we just got to know them intimately, but that’s likely more evidence of the author’s strength of characterization. And, besides, I’m told at least some of them resurface in his later work, so this is a problem that can likely be remedied through further reading.