Bookclub review – In the Skin of a Lion

This month, my book club theme was “Favorite City”, which I was pretty excited about. I’ve never picked a book solely on to it’s setting. While I don’t really have a favorite city (I have lots – San Francisco, London, Rome, everywhere in Turkey..), I thought I would pay tribute to my (potential) new home – Toronto. Turns out, not many books are set there. Some of Margaret Atwood’s books are, but I’ve read a fair amount of them and I wanted something new to me. Enter Michael Ondaatje and In the Skin of a Lion. This book is basically the prequel to The English Patient, which I haven’t read, but definitely want to now.

According to the dust jacket:

It is the 1920’s, and Patrick Lewis has arrived in the bustling city of Toronto, leaving behind his Canadian wilderness home. He immerses himself in the lives of the people who surround him, learning, from their stories, the history of the city itself. And he has his own adventures: searching for a missing millionaire, tunnelling beneath Lake Ontario, falling in love.

In the Skin of a Lion is a poetic piece of literature. If you like your novels, fast paced, point A to point B, this is not the book for you. This book is atmospheric, almost dream-like, with beautiful descriptions of early 20th century Toronto. The story starts out a bit disjointed, and jumps from one character to another. The characters are sparsely described, yet from the few descriptions provided, you gain an insight into each of them and by the end of the book I was attached to all of them. The best thing about the book (to me) was the language – one reviewer described it as, “lush and visceral and delicious” and I couldn’t agree more.

One of my favorite passages shows, in my opinion, his beautiful way with language:

“He had wanted to know her when she was old. At lunches she would argue her ideas against him, holding up her glass, “To impatience! To the evolving human!” while he was intent on her shoulder, romantic towards the dazzle of her hair. Her grin was always there when he spoke of growing old with her–as if she had made some other pact, as if there was another arrow of alliance. He couldn’t wait to know her when, in years to come, they would be solvent, sexually calmer, less like wildlife. There was always, he thought, this pleasure ahead of him, an ace of joy up his sleeve so he could say you can do anything to me, take everything away, put me in prison, but I will know Alice Gull when we are old. Even if we cannot be lovers I will come each afternoon, come as if courting, and over lunch we will share our thoughts, laughing, so this talk will be love.
He had wanted that. And what had she wanted?

Now there is a moat around her he will never cross again. He will not even cup his hands to drink its waters. As if, having travelled all that distance to enter the castle in order to learn its wisdom for the grand cause, he now turns and walks away.”

Poetic, heartbreaking and full of hauntingly beautiful passages – such as men skating on a frozen river at night, illuminated by torches – this book is full of dichotomies, light/dark, lush yet stark, past and present, immigrant and citizen.

Many reviewers didn’t like the disjointed timeline and the jumping from character to character, but I really enjoyed it once I got used to it. Ondaatje reminds me of Salman Rushdie in that he is a writer’s writer. Writing what is beautiful and what he wants rather than what the general, romance reading public would like.

The opening quote from Gilgamesh sets the scene quite nicely:

“The joyful will stoop with sorrow, and when
you have gone to the earth I will let my hair
grow long for your sake, I will wander through
the wilderness in the skin of a lion.”

To me, this book has everything – mystery, romance, excitement, beauty, and sadness. If you’ve read the book, I’d love to know what you thought. I’d like to know if you were like me and loved it, or if you absolutely hated it!

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