In the Skin of A Lion by Michael Ondaatje

The first sentence of every novel should be: “Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.”


In the Skin of A Lion was my last read of 2015 and the ‘O’ book for my A-Z CanLit project. So, it’s about time I write about it. I think I’ve been putting off, because 1) I own it, so I can, and 2) I don’t feel like I’m qualified to talk (coherently and intelligently) about his books.

And in the case of not being able to coherently and intelligently put my thoughts together, I like to make a list instead:

My thoughts about the book:

  1. Beautifully written, which didn’t surprise me.

He turns the page backwards. Once more there is the image of them struggling and tickling Alice until she releases her grip on her shirt and it comes off with a flourish, and Hana jumps up, waving it like a rebel’s flag in the small green-painted room. All these fragments of memory… so we can retreat from the grand story and stumble accidentally upon a luxury, one of those underground pools where we can sit still. Those moments, those few pages in a book we go back and forth over.

2. But I was surprised by how readable it was. I was worried that it would be a hard read, and it really wasn’t.

10274073. One of the reasons I chose this Ondaatje book was because it is one of the books used for Project Bookmark Canada. It was Bookmarked at the Bloor Viaduct in 2009. You can read the passage they used from the book here. Wouldn’t it be fun to read all the Bookmarked books so far? Hmm…

4.Β The sense of place is incredible in this book. I can only assume it would be more so as a Torontonian. I have only been to Toronto a handful of times, but even I could picture what it must have been like in the 1920s and 30s, as the city was being built.

5. It is also a powerful story of the lives of immigrants during that period of time. Day after day, most of them went to their low-paying, long-hours, high-risk jobs; the ones that helped to make Toronto the city it is now.

What the dyers wanted, standing there together, the representatives from separate nations, was a cigarette. To stand during the five-minute break dressed in green talking to a man in yellow, and smoke. To take in the fresh energy of smoke and swallow it deep into their lungs, roll it around and breathe it up so it would remove with luck the acrid texture already deep within them, stuck within every corner of their flesh. A cigarette, a star beam through their flesh, would have been enough to purify them.

6. The history and sense of place were the best parts of the novel. I sometimes found the story itself a little confusing. It goes from one storyline to another, and at first there does not seem to be any connection. But, I refer you to the quote at the top of my post – very apt here.

I also found the love story confusing, and felt like the protagonist himself was a little confused about who it was he loved until closer to the end (when it was too late). But maybe that was intentional.

I actually enjoyed the secondary storylines more; Nicholas and the nun, Caravaggio’s escape from the Kingston Penitentiary, Patrick’s heroic climb up the water treatment tunnel.


Further information and some historical photos:

The Birth of the Bloor Viaduct

The construction of Toronto’s water treatment plant

An look inside of the RC Harris water treatment plant




What’s your favourite Michael Ondaatje book?


52 thoughts on “In the Skin of A Lion by Michael Ondaatje

  1. roughghosts says:

    I think I read this more than a dozen years ago and I still have the most vivid collection of images and memories in my mind. One of my favourite books of all time.

    • Naomi says:

      In case I wasn’t able to convey how vivid his descriptions were in my review, your comment can do it for me. πŸ™‚
      I’m glad to hear it stuck with you! I’m hoping it will do the same for me.

  2. Don Royster says:

    I am amazed that Canada can produce so many world class writers. It reminds me of another small populated country, Ireland. Robertson Davies, Alastair Macleod, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Ondaatje. There must be something in the water up there. The only Ondaatje book I have read is “The English Patient” and I loved it. So much better than the movie. But I have read excerpts from his other writings. I actually had the good fortune to see him at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. I have on my shelf another of his books, The Cat’s Table, which you are now encouraging me to read. My final comment is this. I would give my left arm to write as beautifully as he does. He is an amazing writer. Thank you for your review.

    • Naomi says:

      I think many people would give their left arm to write as beautifully as he does. πŸ™‚
      We really do have some great writers up here, don’t we? Thanks for pointing it out! Maybe it’s the long winters keeping us inside with our thoughts for days at a time. πŸ™‚ But, really , there are beautiful writers everywhere.
      I haven’t read The English Patient, because of the fact that I saw the movie and I don’t like to know what happens. But maybe I will read it anyway, since I have it on my shelf. I also have The Cat’s Table – you should read yours and tell me what you think!

  3. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    That’s a great review Naomi, I don’t recall hearing about this book, but you make it sound intriguing. I read The English Patient many years ago and also Anil’s Ghost, I’m always interested to see what he is writing.

    • Naomi says:

      Thank you, Claire! I have Anil’s Ghost on my shelf, and almost read it instead, but decided I wanted to read the one they used for the Bookmark.

  4. JacquiWine says:

    Like many others, I read The English Patient many years ago (before the Anthony Minghella film adaptation came out), and I loved it too. His prose is wonderful, isn’t it? I do like the quotes you’ve included here. Another of his books is sitting on my wishlist, Coming Through Slaughter – a novel based on the life of the jazz cornetist, Buddy Bolden. Have you read that one?

    • Naomi says:

      I haven’t read that one, and I don’t own it either. I do own several more of Ondaatje’s books, but that isn’t one of them.
      I’m wishing I had read The English Patient before seeing the movie. I don’t like knowing how the book is going to turn out before reading it, but maybe it’s been long enough since seeing the movie that I could reconsider…

    • Naomi says:

      Oh, you should re-read it, Sarah! The whole time I was reading it, I was thinking that it would be even better the second time (partly because of some of the story-jumping that he does – this is a good example of a book that might be even better the second time through).
      This really was a perfect book for one of the Bookmarks. I’ve already looked to see if our library has the next book on the list (Rogue’s Wedding, I think?). And it does. πŸ™‚

    • Naomi says:

      I just went and read your review of the book, and I like what you say about his writing being like a deep, soothing voice. Good comparison!
      And it sounds like we had the same issues with the stories jumping around a lot. I do think it would be better the second time through for this reason. But his writing is so good it doesn’t really matter. πŸ™‚

    • Naomi says:

      I can see that. As I was reading I was thinking that it was his writing that was so beautiful more so than the storyline. Also, in this case, the sense of place and time. But, I couldn’t say for the 2 you read, because I haven’t read them.

  5. writereads says:

    I think Kirtles loved In the Skin of a Lion. I myself also tend to like fragmented stories, or circular ones, as long as the authors don’t go overboard in how confusing they make their world (being unclear for the sake of being unclear).
    I’m not sure why I’ve always been put off by Ondaatje…I read the English Patient and it was good…perhaps it was all the hype that surrounded that movie that turned me off his books in general, which is ridiculous and unfair of me.
    While I completely understand feeling intimidated to do justice to a particular book (I can’t write about Station Eleven yet, because I’m not sure my words could ever really encapsulate all that book meant to me), you are a great reviewer and I think you should feel qualified to write about any book!
    BTW, I love the idea of Project Bookmark, but it seems kinda like Project Ontario at the moment. When it become a tad more inclusive of other provinces, I’ll like it more :). -Tania

  6. buriedinprint says:

    Either this one or The Cat’s Table would probably be my favourite, the former for all the reasons you’ve cited and because it was the first of his books which I read, the latter because I love the story-within-a-story feel to it. But I really enjoyed Divisidero and Running in the Family, which I read last year.

    I’ve been halfheartedly reading the Project Bookmark books and have read about half, I think; I have a list of them in my notebook (can’t recall if I have posted it on BIP yet) and read Jeff Latosik’s book of poetry last year from the list. There are a LOT of Ontario markers but it seems like they are trying to include a wider variety of provinces in recent years, which is just great!

    • Naomi says:

      Do you have any favourites from the ones you’ve read?
      I found In the Skin of A Lion to be such a fitting choice – have you found the others to be, as well?

      • buriedinprint says:

        Sometimes the books that most strike me as having an intense sense of place to them don’t have a specific location that one could mark with a plaque, whereas the Viaduct does seem just perfect for the Ondaatje novel, doesn’t it.

        Sometimes a book they’ve chosen has aspects to it which resonate more strongly with me than the location (as with Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces, where the bits of memory stuck with me longer than the streets of Toronto). But that one was a favourite for many years too and I would love to reread it and see if I still think it’s as beautiful as I did then. (Also, I’d like to watch the movie after I reread: another project?!)

        I love everything by Carol Shields and Bronwen Wallace (MustReadEverything authors for me) and I loved Jade Peony and Garbo Laughs too. I was pleased to see Alistair MacLeod’s novel included recently, but all that I have read of his are the stories – I figure you must have read No Great Mischief for your AC project?

        Are you aiming for Lawrence Hill’s novel next then? “Next”? Or “next”? Or “soon”? Hee

      • Naomi says:

        I read No Great Mischief before I started my blog, but I haven’t read his stories which I hear are wonderful. I even had one from the library a few months ago, but sent it back unread. Silly. It wouldn’t have taken long to read. But I know where it is.
        Lawrence Hill’s novel “maybe soon hopefully”? Ha.

  7. buriedinprint says:

    Oh, and I think you were looking for a reason to read Any Known Blood, right? It’s the latest in the bookmarks!

    • Naomi says:

      There were so many lovely quotes to choose from – it took me longer than it should have to put it together because I was trying to choose between them all. I both love that and hate that. πŸ™‚
      I own The Cat’s Table, so good to hear!

  8. DoingDewey says:

    I’m surprised that I don’t write list-format review more often! They really can be a nice, easy way to get my thoughts down. I’d not heard of this author, but he sounds like someone I should take note of. I really enjoy books with a strong sense of place and time, things that feel as though they capture the essence of an era.

  9. Karen says:

    Michael Ondaatje is one of those authors that I’ve been meaning to read for a long time but have never gotten around to it. Your review has sold me, even knowing that the story may get confusing at times. Now that I live in Toronto, I feel like I must learn more about the history!

  10. Lynn says:

    I already had this, as well as The English Patient and The Cat’s Table on my TBR list but have yet to read any of them! This should serve as a motivator!

  11. Carole Besharah says:

    So happy you filled out the O spot on your Canada A-Z list, yay!

    You are seeing the finish line (though I fear your list will get tough with the remaining letters). πŸ˜‰

    • Naomi says:

      I do feel like I can see the light… πŸ™‚
      I have ‘Q’ and ‘R’ picked out already, and I’m hoping to get this finished this year!

  12. Read Diverse Books says:

    I loved the idea of Project Bookmark Canada! These kinds of challenges are wonderful and necessary for all book lovers.

    I see that Ondaatje was born in Sri-Lanka. That’s really interesting and fits with my goal to read books every year by authors whose roots span the world. I’ll go to the “O” section at the bookstore and look out for him the next time I go!

  13. BookerTalk says:

    What a coincidence, I just picked this up for $1 in a library book sale in Michigan never having heard of it before but knowing how much I loved The English Patient I thought it well worth that huge outlay of cash. So glad to know it is money well spent

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s