Trying the Reader's Patience

29/01/2010 19:21

Review of Divisadero, by Michael Ondaatje (London: Bloomsbury, 2008).


If you’re a fan of linear stories, you are not likely to have liked either Ondaatje’s most famous novel to date, The English Patient (1992), or its eponymous Oscar-winning film adaptation starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche (1996). And you are not likely to fall for the latest book (I’m really hesitant about calling it a novel) by this Sri Lanka-born Canadian either.

Ondaatje’s Divisadero, first published in 2007, opens on a farm in the Northern California of the 1970s, where a widower, whose name we never learn, is bringing up two daughters: Anna, his natural daughter, and Claire, a girl whose mother died in childbirth at the same time and at the very same hospital as Anna’s mother. Anna’s father took the baby home because he felt the hospital “owed him a wife, they owed him something.” He raises both the girls as twin sisters. Although they were mothered by two different women, you just can’t tell them from each other: they are interchangeable and inseparable as little children. Living with them on the farm is Coop, a farmhand, only four years older than the sisters, who was taken in as a toddler by Anna’s parents after his own family was murdered by a hired hand. These three motherless children develop a bond stronger and more intense than most blood siblings. Things, however, get complicated as the sisters come of age. Their bond breaks as Anna’s sisterly fondness for Coop becomes something else. It doesn’t take long before a violent incident casts them all out of the Garden of Eden and separates them—as we learn later—forever.

However, it is not only the characters who split up; so does the novel. One narrative strand follows Coop who creates a new life for himself as a gambler in Nevada. Although another violent attack throws him and Claire together again (quite a coincidence that she finds him nearly dead from a beating again), their story remains unresolved—much to the reader’s frustration. Then, by yet another sleight of hand, we find ourselves in a rural French village where the adult Anna, estranged from her family, has come to escape her own past and research the life and work of a forgotten poet and adventure-novel writer, Lucien Segura. Anna’s stay in France introduces another plot line to the book, which, all of a sudden, veers almost a century into the past to retell the life of the author whose biography Anna is writing. Despite the fact that the French writer’s life story is written in a compelling manner and relatively well connected to the rest of the story through a pattern of parallels, echoes, and reflections, the reader can feel disappointed. Ondaatje first pulls you into a captivating story and then abandons the characters you’ve become fond of without saying good-bye—and you can’t help missing them.

That’s, however, a typical Ondaatje: playing with many threads in novels, telling stories impressionistically rather than chronologically, and drifting from present to past and vice versa seemingly at will. Yet this is how the past intrudes on the present, he says. Our present is informed by our past. We are forever haunted by our ghosts, episodes from other eras, moments that have shaped us. “We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell,” Claire, one of the two female protagonists of Divisadero, tells us. “It’s like a villanelle, this inclination of going back to events in our past, the way the villanelle's form refuses to move forward in linear development, circling instead at those familiar moments of emotion.” In this respect, Ondaatje’s method is perhaps more accurate in reflecting life’s realities, and the twists and turns it may take. “Only the rereading counts,” Nabokov said. And really, the more you reread the novel, the more you come to understand it through uncovering subtle links between the multiple plot lines.

Ondaatje is never an easy read, and I can quite understand all the readers who find his convoluted storytelling irritating. Ondaatje really is trying the reader’s patience. On the other hand, he can be spellbinding if you let him. He still believes in art as a necessity to life, and this faith permeates his books. His language reminds you of music, magical and enchanting. Therefore, once you fall under the spell of the lyrical beauty of his prose, you’ll end up screaming for more.

Lucia Otrísalová


Ondaatje: Trying the Reader's Patience

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