Books by Michael Ondaatje

WARLIGHT by Michael Ondaatje
Released: May 8, 2018

"Ondaatje's shrewd character study plays out in a smart, sophisticated drama, one worth the long wait for fans of wartime intrigue."
Acclaimed novelist Ondaatje (The Cat's Table, 2011, etc.) returns to familiar ground: a lyrical mystery that plays out in the shadow of World War II. Read full book review >
THE CAT'S TABLE by Michael Ondaatje
Released: Oct. 1, 2011

"Elegiac, mature and nostalgic—a fine evocation of childhood, and of days irretrievably past."
A graceful, closely observed novel that blends coming-of-age tropes with a Conradian sea voyage. Read full book review >
DIVISADERO by Michael Ondaatje
Released: June 4, 2007

"Not to be missed."
Poetic intensity trumps structural irregularity and storytelling opacity in the celebrated Ontario author's intense fifth novel (Anil's Ghost, 2000, etc.). Read full book review >
LOST CLASSICS by Michael Ondaatje
Released: Aug. 28, 2001

"A great idea for a journal issue, but forgettable in this format."
Margaret Atwood, Russell Banks, Ondaatje, and many, many others remember favorite books the rest of us have supposedly forgotten. When editors of the Canadian literary journal Brick sat down on a rainy afternoon and thought of asking their long-time contributors to tell them "the story of a book loved and lost, books that had been overlooked or under-read, that had been stolen and never retrieved, or that were long out of print," one imagines them envisioning an outcome similar to what happened on another rainy evening long ago when Byron and the Shelleys challenged each other to a ghost story. What results this time is no Frankenstein. The 70-odd short reminiscences of mostly obscure works, while at times touching, are largely self-serving and do not resonate from one vignette to the next. The pieces are too short to yield useful theoretical musings on the memories of reading—which is especially unfortunate since such a forum would be the perfect opportunity to study some well-known writers as readers. While the concept is enticing, its execution leaves something to be desired. Read full book review >
ANIL'S GHOST by Michael Ondaatje
Released: May 1, 2000

"Impressive and often fascinating, but not a success. There's ample evidence that Ondaatje worked diligently, and perhaps for several years, on Anil's Ghost. But he doesn't seem to have finished it. (First printing of 200,000)"
The aftershocks of the recent bloody civil war in Sri Lanka, and of doomed efforts to name and remember that afflicted country's ``disappeared,'' are explored with commanding poetic intensity in this striking latest from the Canadian (and Sri Lankan-born) author of (this novel's immediate predecessor) The English Patient (1992). Read full book review >
Released: April 25, 1997

Ondaatje is a Canadian poet (the stunning Collected Works of Billy the Kid), and his first full-length stretch of prose is one of the more successful resolutions of a poet/novelist identity crisis. The life of pioneer jazz musician Charles (Buddy) Belden, 1876?-1931, gives Ondaatje his charged, raw material: Buddy's hyperactive New Orleans good times—daytime barber, nighttime cornet man, fulltime editor of The Cricket, a gossip-news-crime sheet for "the District"—and his descent into the bad times when "he didn't want to meet anybody he knew again, ever in his life." When that happens, Buddy leaves wife Norah and two kids, disappears for two years (an uneasy menage a trois with a married couple), and, tracked down by old copfriend Webb, returns in time to join a parade, go berserk, and spend the last 25 years of his life in East Louisiana State Hospital—"Dementia Praecox. Paranoid Type." The narrative mosaic incorporates pronoun-switching, flashes forward, back, and sideways, slivers of authentic documents and interview transcripts, free verse, and free association, but, with near-miraculous control, Ondaatje fends off any artsy confusion about who, where, when, or what is happening. That's his triumph; his downfall is that, despite the lusty milieu, the freewheeling passions, and the vivid, fact-based characters (like Bellocq, photographer of prostitutes and self-arsonist), Buddy Bolden's life never seems as real, immediate, or important as the elaborate variations on it. Read full book review >
THE ENGLISH PATIENT by Michael Ondaatje
Released: Oct. 15, 1992

Canadian poet/novelist Ondaatje (In the Skin of a Lion, 1987, etc.) assembles, mosaic-fashion, the lives of four occupants of an Italian villa near Florence at the end of WW II. The war-damaged villa, its grounds strewn with mines, has gone from to German stronghold to Allied hospital, its sole occupants now a young Canadian nurse, Hana, and her last patient, a born victim. They are joined by David Caravaggio, an Italian-Canadian friend of Hana's father but also a thief used by Western intelligence, and Kip (Kirpal Singh), an Indian sapper in the British Army. So: a dying man and two wrecks—for David has become a morphine addict after his recent capture and torture, while Hana, who coped with the loss of her soldier sweetheart and their child (aborted), has been undone by news of her father's death. Only Kip is functioning efficiently, defusing the mines. Ondaatje superimposes on this tableau the landscape of the pre-war North African desert, with its strange brotherhood of Western explorers, filtered through the consciousness of Harm's patient. Though he claims to have forgotten his identity during the fiery fall from his plane into the desert, it seems the putative Englishman is the Hungarian explorer (and sometime German spy) Almasy, but such puzzles count for less than his erudition (his beloved Herodotus is the novel's presiding spirit), his internationalism ("Erase nations!"), and his doomed but incandescent love affair with the bride of an English explorer—an affair ignited by the desert and Herodotus, and a dramatic contrast to the "formal celibacy" of the love developing at the villa between Hana and Kip, which ends (crudely) when Kip learns of the Hiroshima bombing, discovers his racial identity, and quits the white man's war. A challenging, disorienting, periodically captivating journey without maps, best when least showy, as in the marvelous account of Kip's adoption by an eccentric English peer, his bomb-disposal instructor. Read full book review >
IN THE SKIN OF A LION by Michael Ondaatje
Released: Sept. 28, 1987

A lyric and sometimes surreal novel by the Canadian poet and writer Ondaatje (author of the remarkable poetry volume The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, 1974; and the novel about Buddy Bolden, Coming through Slaughter, 1977) that may remind readers of certain of the more captivating aspects of, say, Ragtime. Ondaatje's setting is Toronto and environs from pre-WW I years up to 1938, and his emerging (but not only) theme is the labor and union movement among immigrant workers. In segments that read much like stories themselves, the reader meets a boy named Patrick Lewis, whose father is a dynamiter for lumber companies in backwoods Canada, then follows Patrick as he later goes to big-city Toronto and becomes (in 1924) a "searcher" for the missing capitalist and ruthless millionaire Ambrose Small. As part of his search—conducted (as is the whole of the book) amid a pleasurable wealth of period atmosphere and detail—Patrick meets and falls in love with Ambrose Small's actress-mistress, Clara Dickens; and then, when Clara Dickens "must" return to the somewhere-still-existing Small (in one of the novel's more surreal sections), Patrick falls in love with Clara's best friend, Alice Gull. The reader will learn in time that Alice is in fact the nun who was thought to have disappeared after falling from a new bridge back in 1917 (though in fact she was caught in mid-air by an immigrant worker), and, in her new incarnation as actress and lover, she will seek to radicalize Patrick Lewis, who himself now works as a laborer for the city's vast and grandiose new waterworks project. The radicalizing will succeed, though something terrible will happen to Alice, and, in between, there will be side stories—colorful, imagistic, and often lovely—about union martyrs and labor pioneers. If there are flaws here, they lie in the minor hints of a history-lesson tendentiousness, but a poetically energized grace and a perfected and rich inventiveness remain the greater marks of this talented writer. Read full book review >
RUNNING IN THE FAMILY by Michael Ondaatje
Released: Oct. 18, 1982

Canadian poet Ondaatje (The Collected Works of Billy the Kid) made two return journeys to his birthplace, Ceylon, in 1978 and 1980—and the result is this slight, graceful mosaic: a collection of poetic impressions and less poetic (but far more involving) Ondaatje-family stories. "How I have used them. . . . They knit the story together, each memory a wild thread in the sarong." Thus, Ondaatje pieces together his parents' histories from elderly relatives still living in Ceylon—Aunt Dolly, for instance, whose "80-year-old brain leaps like a spark plug bringing this year that year to life." And the world of these memories is primarily that of 1920s/1930s Ceylon high-society—not the European colonials, but the resident elite: "Everyone was vaguely related and had Sinhalese, Tamil, Dutch, British and Burgher blood in them going back many generations"; the preoccupations were gambling, drink, romance. So most of the friends and family hardly noticed at first that Ondaatje's suave soldier-father was an alcoholic—until he began ripping off his clothes on the railway or (in desperation) draining the liquid from kerosene lamps into his mouth. And grandmother Lalla, too, was an ancestor worth reconstructing: an earthy, merry widow ("loved most by people who saw her arriving from the distance like a storm"), the first woman in Ceylon to have a mastectomy, the triumphant victim of a 1947 flood—"her last perfect journey," evoked in imaginative detail here. Ondaatje captures less personally particular aspects of Ceylon as well: the heat, the snakes, the beautiful alphabet, the exotic wildlife. But, while there's no strong dramatic shape to his rediscovery of his parents' past (Ondaatje himself remains a blur), it's the family history that almost always holds this delicate assemblage together-and extends its appeal to a readership beyond Ondaatje's poetry-oriented following. Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 28, 1974

The poems, some of them in prose, in this taut and stunning book, dart by like small desert animals. Billy is in charge here, all the way, speaking with the cool precision of an assassin, his images coming rapid and accurate as bullets, taking the measure of friends and enemies, hawks circling, horses straining, women loved and men murdered. Billy, loving Miss Angela Dickinson, who "leans back waving feet at me/catching me like a butterfly/in the shaved legs in her Tucson room"; Billy, appraising Mr. Pat Garrett, who "became frightened of flowers because they grew so slowly that he couldn't tell what they planned to do." Billy, Mr. William Bonney to you, is in control but Ondaatje alternates his voice with that of others who knew him and the many sudden deaths and the dusty stillness of the Southwest, incorporating a jailhouse interview with the press, a passage from a 19th century children's book celebrating the fair Mexican ladies and their boy bandit king, eyewitness accounts and photographs. The effect is that of a series of sepia daguerrotypes of the Old West circa 1880. The cheap pop immortality of Billy is compressed and reduced into hard gemstone. Previously published to wide acclaim in Canada, this has the impact of a high-voltage wire. Read full book review >