June 2007

Ondaatje’s portrait of a family divided

By Michael Ondaatje
Review by
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Canadian author Michael Ondaatje is best known for his 1992 novel, The English Patient, which won the Booker Prize that year. In his latest novel, his first since 2000's Anil's Ghost, Ondaatje weaves a mesmerizing saga of closely-knit characters who suddenly and dramatically disperse, and are forced to reinvent themselves years and continents apart.

The novel opens with a bucolic scene a farm in northern California in the 1970s where a single father has raised two teenaged daughters, Anna and Claire, since birth. He is assisted by Coop, a boy a few years older than the girls an orphan he informally adopted. Their peaceful life is fractured when the father discovers a doomed romance between Anna and Coop, and the ensuing violence propels them all onto different and solitary paths.

The reader next encounters Anna 18 years later in a small village in southern France. Now a literary archivist conducting research on Segura, a turn-of-the-century poet and novelist, she is still unable to escape the incident that set fire to the rest of [her] life. During these same years, Claire finds herself living two distinct lives: doing legal research in San Francisco during the week, then spending weekends with her father on the farm. The two live quietly there, always circling the episode that led to the absence of Anna in their lives. While working on a case, Claire runs into Coop in Tahoe, and discovers he has lost all memory of the incident and has no desire to revisit his past.

The narrative then shifts to the life of the novelist Anna is studying in France. After leaving his own wife, Segura buys an abandoned farmhouse and adopts his own gypsy couple and their son Rafael. Decades after that, Anna stays in that farmhouse, and meets and loves Rafael thus tying together two of many threads in this haunting and ever-spiraling story.

Ondaatje is also a poet; here he has woven a tale of loves lost and families sundered in a brilliantly poetic voice a tale that lingers long after its telling.

Deborah Donovan writes from Cincinnati and La Veta, Colorado.

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By Michael Ondaatje
ISBN 9780307266354

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