IN THE SKIN OF A LION
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.