Anil's Ghost

Anil's Ghost

3.5 27
by Michael Ondaatje

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Following the phenomenal success of Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning third novel, The English Patient, expectations were almost insurmountable. The internationally acclaimed #1 bestseller had made Ondaatje the first Canadian novelist ever to win the Booker. Four years later, in 1996, a motion picture based on the book brought the story to a vast

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Following the phenomenal success of Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning third novel, The English Patient, expectations were almost insurmountable. The internationally acclaimed #1 bestseller had made Ondaatje the first Canadian novelist ever to win the Booker. Four years later, in 1996, a motion picture based on the book brought the story to a vast new audience. The film, starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche, went on to win numerous prizes, among them nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Worldwide English-language sales of the book topped two million copies.

But in April 2000, Anil’s Ghost was widely hailed as Ondaatje’s most powerful and engrossing novel to date. Winning a Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize and the Giller Prize, Anil’s Ghost became an international bestseller. “Nowhere has Ondaatje written more beautifully,” said The New York Times Book Review.

The setting is Sri Lanka. Steeped in centuries of cultural achievement and tradition, the country has been ravaged in the late twentieth century by bloody civil war. As in The English Patient, Ondaatje’s latest novel follows a woman’s attempt to piece together the lost life of a victim of war. Anil Tissera, born in Sri Lanka but educated in England and the U.S., is sent by an international human rights group to participate in an investigation into suspected mass political murders in her homeland. Working with an archaeologist, she discovers a skeleton whose identity takes Anil on a fascinating journey that involves a riveting mystery. What follows, in a novel rich with character, emotion, and incident, is a story about love and loss, about family, identity and the unknown enemy. And it is a quest to unlock the hidden past – like a handful of soil analyzed by an archaeologist, the story becomes more diffuse the farther we reach into history.

A universal tale of the casualties of war, unfolding as a detective story, the book gradually gives way to a more intricate exploration of its characters, a symphony of loss and loneliness haunted by a cast of solitary strangers and ghosts. The atrocities of a seemingly futile, muddled war are juxtaposed against the ancient, complex and ultimately redemptive culture and landscape of Sri Lanka.

Anil’s Ghost is Michael Ondaatje's first novel to be set in the country of his birth. “There’s a tendency with us in England and North America to say it’s a book ‘about Sri Lanka.’ But it’s just my take on a few characters, a personal tunnelling into that … The book’s not just about Sri Lanka; it’s a story that’s very familiar in other parts of the world” – in Africa, in Yugoslavia, in South America, in Ireland. “I didn’t want it to be a political tract. I wanted it to be a human study of people in the midst of fear.”

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Editorial Reviews
Anil's Ghost

Halfway into Michael Ondaatje's new novel, Anil's Ghost, there is a scene so quietly devastating that it alone makes the novel worth reading. It is the mid-1980s, and a civil war is raging on the tiny island nation of Sri Lanka. Each day, fresh corpses inundate emergency medical clinics—many of them so mutilated that they are unidentifiable and can only be classified as "disappearances." Anil Tissera, a 33-year-old forensic anthropologist born in Sri Lanka and educated abroad, returns to the island as part of a United Nations human rights campaign to prove that mass murders are taking place. In the hope of identifying the corpses, she takes the unusual step of hiring a local "face painter" named Ananda, who, with mud, soot, paint, and sheer instinct, reconstructs the ghostly visage of one suspiciously disinterred body. Anil then shows the image around the local villages, hoping that it will be recognized. This grisly mask becomes Anil's Ghost, and she raises it high to reveal to the world, and the government of Sri Lanka, that she knows what has been going on.

In addition to being his best story yet, Ondaatje's tale is a similarly brave and grisly act of reanimation: It conjures a dark period in Sri Lankan history and reveals how the atrocities directly affect the three main characters. The novel begins with Anil's arrival on the island and builds outward from there. Forty-nine-year-old archaeologist Sarath Diaysena is assigned by the Sri Lankan government to be Anil's official guide, but in spite of his expertise, he never really warms to the role. Sarath wants nothing to do with stirring up trouble. Since his wife's suicide, he has withdrawn into his work, attempting to buffer himself against the horrors being perpetrated all around him. His brother Gamini, a doctor who works in the field clinics, cannot afford the luxury of denial; the grim casualties of war are wheeled into his clinic by the hour. Unlike Sarath, he knows that one day soon he will recognize one of the victims.

When Sarath and Anil leave the city for the remote villages where Ministry of Health officials rarely, if ever, go, it becomes all but impossible for Sarath to remain uninvolved. Severed heads are staked out along the roads as a warning to anyone thinking of joining the resistance. Even the reticent Sarath admits that small guerrilla groups can hardly be the cause of such widespread brutality. Gamini, meanwhile, is so overwhelmed with triage and autopsies that he turns to his own supply of pharmaceuticals in order to stay awake. Despite the obvious signs of mass murder, Sarath begs Anil not to continue her investigation. He knows how the government will respond to an outsider who tries to exhume its dirty secrets. But Anil knows that it is this very fear that must be overcome if the murders are to be stopped. When she and Sarath find a person who can help them confirm the age of a body interred in a government-controlled cave, there is no turning back.

The remainder of the novel chronicles Anil and Sarath's quest to learn the origins of this body and its identity. Even in the last 20 pages, the novel's crucial questions remain artfully suspended: How much safety is Sarath willing to sacrifice in order to bring these atrocities to light? Will the body be recognized? Will Sarath ever open up to Anil? Will either of them back down when their snooping comes to light? Anil's Ghost is the closest Ondaatje is likely to come to writing a page-turner; many readers will likely devour it in one sitting.

But what makes this more than just a thrilling tale, and invites rereadings, is the way Ondaatje textures his characters' interior lives. And this is where we get vintage Ondaatje. Using flashbacks and brilliant set pieces, Ondaatje spreads out their histories before us like a cartographer, and through this careful mapping we feel his characters' pain and disillusionment. There is Anil's growing guilt over having left Sri Lanka before the disappearances began, and her attempt to expiate that guilt by working to bring these events to light. There is Gamini's struggle to keep hope alive after so many bodies have died in his arms. And finally, there is Sarath's judicious approach to each new atrocity, an attitude that mirrors his technique of keeping a close lid on his heart.

In Ondaatje's literary universe, it is through loving that we define ourselves, and his characters reveal their essential natures by how they do and do not love. Anil has recently run out on her boyfriend after stabbing him in the arm with a small knife. The face painter Ananda's own wife is numbered among the disappearances. When reconstructing the faces of the missing, he gives each of them a serene portrayal, in the hope that his wife, too, will find peace. Sarath's wife, who killed herself at the height of the disappearances, is a more indirect casualty. At the nexus of these three characters is Gamini. Like Anil, he is living on the edge—giving his life to the cause of helping others—but unlike Sarath, he is willing to risk his heart by trying to find true love.

In Ondaatje's previous books, his characters transcended their war-ravaged condition through sexual connection. Here, however, sex is the ground upon which the political battles raging around the characters turn personal, where people learn their fates. Ultimately, what brings home the crushing truth of the atrocities is the extent to which each character gives up on romantic love. Yet in the midst of such emotional decimation, Anil never abandons her struggle to bring the murders to light. Matters of the heart are defined by what we sacrifice. And by risking everything for truth, Anil delivers her most profound expression of love to her reclaimed country.

John Freeman

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Product Details

Knopf Canada
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.16(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.88(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

She arrived in early March, the plane landing at Katunayake airport before the dawn. They had raced it ever since coming over the west coast of India, so that now passengers stepped onto the tarmac in the dark.

By the time she was out of the terminal the sun had risen. In the West she'd read, The dawn comes up like thunder, and she knew she was the only one in the classroom to recognize the phrase physically. Though it was never abrupt thunder to her. It was first of all the noise of chickens and carts and modest morning rain or a man squeakily cleaning the windows with newspaper in another part of the house.

As soon as her passport with the light-blue UN bar was processed, a young official approached and moved alongside her. She struggled with her suitcases but he offered no help.

'How long has it been? You were born here, no?'

'Fifteen years.'

'You still speak Sinhala?'

'A little. Look, do you mind if I don't talk in the car on the way into Colombo — I'm jet-lagged. I just want to look. Maybe drink some toddy before it gets too late. Is Gabriel's Saloon still there for head massages?'

'In Kollupitiya, yes. I knew his father.'

'My father knew his father too.'

Without touching a single suitcase he organized the loading of the bags into the car. 'Toddy!' He laughed, continuing his conversation. 'First thing after fifteen years. The return of the prodigal.'

'I'm not a prodigal.'

An hour later he shook hands energetically with her at the door of the small house they had rented for her.

'There's a meeting tomorrow with Mr. Diyasena.'

'Thank you.'

'You have friends here, no?'

'Not really.'

Anil was glad to be alone. There was a scattering of relatives in Colombo, but she had not contacted them to let them know she was returning. She unearthed a sleeping pill from her purse, turned on the fan, chose a sarong and climbed into bed. The thing she had missed most of all were the fans. After she had left Sri Lanka at eighteen, her only real connection was the new sarong her parents sent her every Christmas (which she dutifully wore), and news clippings of swim meets. Anil had been an exceptional swimmer as a teenager, and the family never got over it; the talent was locked to her for life. As far as Sri Lankan families were concerned, if you were a well-known cricketer you could breeze into a career in business on the strength of your spin bowling or one famous inning at the Royal-Thomian match. Anil at sixteen had won the two-mile swim race that was held by the Mount Lavinia Hotel.

Each year a hundred people ran into the sea, swam out to a buoy a mile away and swam back to the same beach, the fastest male and the fastest female fêted in the sports pages for a day or so. There was a photograph of her walking out of the surf that January morning — which The Observer had used with the headline 'Anil Wins It!' and which her father kept in his office. It had been studied by every distant member of the family (those in Australia, Malaysia and England, as well as those on the island), not so much because of her success but for her possible good looks now and in the future. Did she look too large in the hips?

The photographer had caught Anil's tired smile in the photograph, her right arm bent up to tear off her rubber swimming cap, some out-of-focus stragglers (she had once known who they were). The black-and-white picture had remained an icon in the family for too long.

She pushed the sheet down to the foot of the bed and lay there in the darkened room, facing the waves of air. The island no longer held her by the past. She'd spent the fifteen years since ignoring that early celebrity. Anil had read documents and news reports, full of tragedy, and she had now lived abroad long enough to interpret Sri Lanka with a long-distance gaze. But here it was a more complicated world morally. The streets were still streets, the citizens remained citizens. They shopped, changed jobs, laughed. Yet the darkest Greek tragedies were innocent compared with what was happening here. Heads on stakes. Skeletons dug out of a cocoa pit in Matale. At university Anil had translated lines from Archilochus — In the hospitality of war we left them their dead to remember us by. But here there was no such gesture to the families of the dead, not even the information of who the enemy was.

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What People are saying about this

Ariel Dorfman
A truly wondrous book. The layers of human history, the depth of the human body, the heartache of love and fratricide have rarely been conveyed with such dignity and translucence. I was enthralled as I have not been since The English Patient.

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Anil's Ghost 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 27 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ondaatji, the author of The English Patient, reveals key points in the worldwide search for hidden graves through a tough, dedicated and incredibly focused heroine. This struggle for human rights comes vividly alive through a lush and moving history of Sri Lanka, ever a victim of arms dealers. A deeply emotional and intense tale.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book several years ago, and am buying it for my Nook to read again.  I've never forgotten many of the scenes that stayed in my mind and sort of haunted me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
JasMax More than 1 year ago
I've never read any books by this author before "Anil's Ghost". I really enjoyed reading about Anil's journey through her past and present. The book left me wondering about her future and I love it when books do that. I like the style of writing as well. One loses the inner dialogue we all have with ourselves when watching a movie. I enjoyed Anil's inner dialogue and, in her own way, the character inspired me.
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SinclairPG More than 1 year ago
The story pulls the reader in by first detailing forensic specifics on a crime. Then, by use of push and pull, the reader is led back and forth in time and events with adventures, mystery, suspense and love all along the way. Thrown in for good measure are cultural and historical details which make the story vivid and which tug at the reader. Enjoy!
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Anil's Ghost is a beautiful novel, but it's not the greatest novel. However, what I did enjoy about this novel is not the story itself, but the themes that is present within it. A few themes I noticed was how history has a tendency to repeat itself by the acts of human nature ('The most precisely recorded moments of history lay adjacent to the extreme actions of nature of civilization' pg 55). Another is the search for an identity because Anil coveted her brother¿s name so much and despised her own and did nothing to have his name as her own. I think that this theme is rather important because it also kind of connections with redemption and trying to find whom someone truly is. Another theme I noticed was how the government can manipulate its people into thinking one way, such as the one in AG. But unlike most nonfiction books, AG doesn't hit the reader with full on clichés, but instead makes the reader think about their perceptions on various aspects of life. What I didn't like about AG is how there truly isn¿t an ending because AG does leave the reader hanging, but in a bad way. Another thing I didn¿t like was the fact that the story seems to lose its plot line somewhere around half way through and how much of the story is told in flashbacks. Because of this, the book jumps into the past and back into the future and often times I didn't even know if I was reading a passage from the present or the past, but I think that almost because of this, Ondaatje exerts the theme of how the shadow of the past holds on the present
Guest More than 1 year ago
Anil¿s Ghost was a grasping, suspenseful and insightful novel. Anil, native to Sri Lanka, furthers her education in the Western world and returns to Sri Lanka to do anthropologist work for an international organization. As she undertakes the challenges of being a ¿foreigner¿ the novel¿s plot advances in complexity as the trails between man and corruption and discover progress. Anil¿s Ghost is a timeless novel as it touches the topics of love, corruption, mystery, understanding and quest. This novel is gripping and tantalizing to a broad audience as the author develops Anil¿s experience trying to discover if the government was directly related to a murder. It is capturing because it presents the concept that the government may not always be correct. The author creates a wonderful novel with her ability to capture the emotions of her characters. She achieves this through her realistic description of the daily routines and culture that the people of Sri Lanka live within. This was a horizon broadening book that was wonderful!
Guest More than 1 year ago
My first thought when finishing Anil's Ghost was 'I hated that.' But I honestly didn't hate it. I was just bored the whole time I was reading it. Ondaatje's style reminded me of Louise Erdrich 'author of Love Medicine'--by that I mean he used metaphors and 'big words' almost awkwardly, as though trying to prove his prowess as a writer. I also feel the need to mention that the dialogue was not marked by any 'he said' or 'she said'. It just went on and on without any indication of who was speaking, and I found myself having to count the lines to figure out who said what. In addition, there was no change in tone. It didn't matter if someone was being sliced open by a knife, a skeleton being found, or Anil was out buying food the tone stayed exactly the same, which gave the book an extremely flat narration. This is part of the reason it failed to hold my interest. Another reason was the characters. I liked Anil, but as the book went on, the reader hears less and less about Anil, and more about characters that are less likeable. Lastly, the plot was constantly halted by episodes that, while they drew the reader's attention to certain political or personal strifes, did not, in my opinion, really enrich the plot at all. The novel stradles the line between being episodic and being a flowing story. I wanted it to pick one or the other--but it didn't. I don't want to say it was all bad, because it wasn't. Ondaatje portrayed Sri Lanka very well, and through his knowledge and description the country was illustrated very vividly. Overall, I would say if you REALLY want to read this book, don't waste your money buying it. Get it out of the library first.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel is rich with language so descriptive, it paints a stunning picture of the environment enveloping the characters. The author has done a spectacular job transporting the reader into the country of his origin, and the plight in their history. It is a slow page turner though, and one might need to re-read a few lines in order to understand what is going on. Nevertheless, it is still a cataclyst for ideas about beauty, love, hate, death, and family.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Anil's Ghost was a book about the ethnic and political wars that began to fester in Sri Lanka during the 1980's. Anil is a young forensic scientist on a Human Rights investigation out to prove political murders are being committed. However interesting this book appears to be in the beginning... ultimately it lacks the powerful ending one would expect.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book, hwile still being a captivating read, left me confused at the end. The story seems to trail off, and the ending seems to bequite bland for a story that up until then, had been a good read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read thsi book for a project in english class and it was a good book. It was confusing at times, but it was good. The ending was bad. The story ended for all of the chracters except the main character.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really could not put this book down. I am not sure however what made it intriguing for me. I'm still trying to digest the novel and connect the pieces. I was dissapointed because somewhere about 1/3 in the plot seems to be lost; There is no real conclusion. Anil accepts her Sri Lankan heritage, but she reaches no other epiphanies. The book really leaves you hanging. (But not in a good way.) As a previous reviewer said, borrow this one!
Guest More than 1 year ago
As an adoring fan, the author fell of his pedastal with this book. The characters were well planned and wonderfully rich, but the book as a whole felt like a character sketch for an intended book. Upon deciding not to write the book, he decided to string a weak plot throughout, leaving the reader unsatisfied and uneasy. I just ask the author to go back to the books with plot and poetry.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a huge fan of the author , I was thoroughly disappointed the story meanders at a snail's pace and frankly it failed to rouse any semblance of interest for any of the main characters
Guest More than 1 year ago
Barbara Kingsolver is my favorite author, bar none. The Poisonwood Bible is a masterpiece! My daughter is in the Peace Corps in Africa and many things are the same today as they were in the Poisowood Bible, back in the late 50's and 60's (and beyond). There are many underlying issues brought out in this book that one can ponder, if one wishes. I can't believe some people wrote reviews and didn't even finish the book! It does take awhile to get 'into' but when finished it is a phenominal read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Michael Ondaatje is a beautiful, poetic writer, no argument here, but poetic writing falls as flat as huge special effects without a good story to flesh it out, and unfortunately, Anil's Ghost doesn't have an interesting story to tell. Well, it might have, but it wasn¿t developed nearly enough. The main characters all have troubled pasts, but none seem to have any present passions or future goals. Ondaatje does paint a vivid picture of tumultuous Sri Lanka and its recent history, much of which I didn't know and was interested to learn, but he doesn't develop a story to support the epic backdrop, as he did in The English Patient. Almasy may have been distant and solitary, but he had a passion for learning and exploring that you couldn't help but adore. Hana desperately tried to escape into nursing, but she had an inner spark awakened by the Patient and Kip that blossomed into joy. Anil similarly escapes into her profession but there's no trace of joy in her past, present or future, and despite the atrocities around her, ends the story essentially unchanged. The murder mystery is abandoned halfway through the book, making way for flashback after flashback, including two nearly identical scenes of doctors being kidnapped, and then returns for a quick and unsatisfying resolution. Practically all the flashbacks are used to explain a character's past, not to create any tension or mystery in the present. All that said, I still eagerly await Ondaatje's next book. When he finds a strong story to support all the other wonderful things he can do, he's one of today's best.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really thought this book was poorly written. The author does use some really nice poetic descriptions of things but they weren't anything memorable. The book jumps around so much going from past to present to future that it got very confusing. The book focused too much on the character's backgrounds rather than the story. The story was totally anticlimactic and parts of the story had absolutely nothing to do with anything else. Obviously a lot of people liked this novel so I would just recommend that you borrow the book from a friend rather than spend good money for it. It was a real let down.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After a four year hiatus and my quick digestion of all his works, Michael Onaadtje once agin mystifies and amazes me. With Anil's Ghost, he depicts the horrible atrocities which seem so commonplace on the evening news, yet here he shows how this maddening world is so routine to the citizens of his tortured homeland. He through Anil shows the evil that humanity is capable of and all in the name of government or more specifically the lust for power. I also loved how throughout the novel he weaves in the interesting ancient history of the people and the places while showing a stark contrast to the present problems of the modern action in the book. The characters and the challenges that they must grapple with are reminiscent of those in his other works but these are much more viable and yet you feel no compassion for none until the very last page. I loved this book and hungrily wait for his next foray into the magical realm of literature.