11 February 2009

Review: Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

Quite a long time ago I had my first experience of reading a book by Michael Ondaatje. It was In the Skin of a Lion and for years I considered it my favourite book. If I don't call it my favourite now, that's probably only because I don't really consider any book my favourite book. (Who can make such a decision? There are so many books.) Whenever I hear there is a new Ondaatje book coming out, I get excited. He is not a fast writer. He's not one of those authors who births a new book every year. There have been at least five years (and as many, I think, as eight) between novels (though those years have been interspersed with books of poetry).

Divisadero, the most recent of Ondaatje's novels, tells the story of a family from California, the way they're torn apart and how they recreate their lives after having something so earth-shattering happen to them. It's mainly about family and the divisions between members of families and also how in spite of distance and such damaging events we can never let go of the people we've lost to them.

Although I've owned the book for several months, this is the first time I've read it. Sometimes, with authors I really love, I put off reading a book because I want so much for it to last forever and I want for it to be perfect and I can't bear the thought of starting it because that will mean finishing it and then I won't have anything to look forward to anymore. Sometimes that works against me, because I'm often disappointed that this book I couldn't bear to open wasn't as perfect as I wanted it to be.

Opening paragraph:
When I come to lie in your arms, you sometimes ask me in which historical moment do I wish to exist. And I will say Paris, the week Colette died….Paris, August 3rd, 1954. In a few days, at her state funeral, a thousand lilies will be placed by her grave, and I want to be there, walking that avenue of wet lime trees until I stand beneath the second-floor apartment that belonged to her in the Palais-Royal. The history of people like her fills my heart. She was a writer who remarked that her only virtue was self-doubt. (A day or two before she died, they say Colette was visited by Jean Genet, who stole nothing. Ah, the grace of the great thief…)
So was Divisadero worth the wait?

A long while ago I said that Ondaatje could write a phone book and make it sound beautiful. This is still true. If you read a dozen reviews of this book, I'm sure you'll see a dozen different ways of calling this book beautiful, and it is. It sounds beautiful and it looks (if you're a visual sort of reader) beautiful. Reading Divisadero is an experience I couldn't hope to explain. There's something very sensual about Ondaatje's words, regardless of the things he is saying or trying to say. I find it hard to describe what this book is about because when I try to think of it, I think of particular scenes, the moment with the fox or when Cooper realizes he's been betrayed or Rafael's horse ride during the eclipse, rather than any A to B to C progression of plot.

And in a way that is the disappointing thing about Ondaatje. He presents moments, more than complete stories. I'd like to know what happens when Claire takes Cooper to the farm. I'd like to know if Anna returns from France. I'd like to know what next. I don't think that's necessarily important to Ondaatje, what next, because I don't know that he really thinks life works like we're taught in grade school to look at books: plot, exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. In a way, this book starts with the climax and it's all just life as usual after that, no perfect resolution of conflict wrapped with a bow of forgiveness and familial happiness ever after.

I always want to tell people to read Ondaatje, but I can't ever be sure how anyone will react to his style. It's beautiful, but maybe florid. I can't ever be sure how anyone will react to the stories because they sometimes feel unfinished. I sometimes suspect that Ondaatje appeals most to the angst in me, which in turn makes me suspect he appeals to the teenager in me, and angsty teenagers are the most horrible of people, melodramatic and excessive, which in turn makes me worry that other readers will find Ondaatje melodramatic and excessive. Don't get me wrong though, I wouldn't unread this book (or any of Ondaatje's books) if I could. The most disappointing thing about it, for me, is the ugly cover. (Hearts? Hearts?) (I know, I know, it's meant to reflect a playing card. And yet, ugly.)

Michael Ondaatje is the author of several novels I love including In the Skin of a Lion, The English Patient and Coming Through Slaughter. The English Patient is probably better known for its film version, however. He's also the author of a memoir and several books of poetry, including The Man with Seven Toes (which I wanted desperately to steal from the library at UBC, but didn't), The Cinnamon Peeler, and the entirely amusing Elimination Dance, which you can find online if you search the title with Ondaatje's name.

Ondaatje, Michael. Divisadero. Toronto: Vintage, 2008.
Finished: 11 February 2009
Rating: 5 of 5 painted blue tables
This was my 1st book in February and my 6th in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

No comments:

Post a Comment