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In the Skin of a Lion

In the Skin of a Lion

3.6 11
by Michael Ondaatje

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In the Skin of a Lion is a love story and an irresistible mystery set in the turbulent, muscular new world of Toronto in the 20s and 30s. Michael Ondaatje entwines adventure, romance and history, real and invented, enmeshing us in the lives of the immigrants who built the city and those who dreamed it into being: the politically powerful, the anarchists,


In the Skin of a Lion is a love story and an irresistible mystery set in the turbulent, muscular new world of Toronto in the 20s and 30s. Michael Ondaatje entwines adventure, romance and history, real and invented, enmeshing us in the lives of the immigrants who built the city and those who dreamed it into being: the politically powerful, the anarchists, bridge builders and tunnellers, a vanished millionaire and his mistress, a rescued nun and a thief who leads a charmed life. This is a haunting tale of passion, privilege and biting physical labour, of men and women moved by compassion and driven by the power of dreams -- sometimes even to murder.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A triumph -- a powerful and revelatory accomplishment."
--The Times Literary Supplement

"Splendidly evocative and entertaining."
--The Toronto Star

"A brilliantly imaginative blend of history, lore, passion and poetry."
--Russell Banks

"What is most moving is the human connectedness of this book… so densly erotic, so subtly sensual, so intensely responsive."
--Malahat Review

"Ondaatje has written into the vivid life of fiction a part of the history of the building of Toronto as no official history would have conceived it and as no official history can now erase it."
--Adele Wiseman

"In the Skin of a Lion is an act of magic!"
--Alberto Manguel

"Beautiful … I urge you to read this book."
--The New York Times

Product Details

Knopf Canada
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.68(d)

Read an Excerpt

An April night in 1917. Harris and Pomphrey were on the bridge, in the dark wind. Pomphrey had turned west and was suddenly stilled. His hand reached out to touch Harris on the shoulder, a gesture he had never made before.

-- Look!

Walking on the bridge were five nuns.

Past the Dominion Steel castings wind attacked the body directly. The nuns were walking past the first group of workers at the fire. The bus, Harris thought, must have dropped them off near Castle Frank and the nuns had, with some confusion at that hour, walked the wrong way in the darkness.

They had passed the black car under the trees and talking cheerfully stepped past the barrier into a landscape they did not know existed -- onto a tentative carpet over the piers, among the night labourers. They saw the fire and the men. A few tried to wave them back. There was a mule attached to a wagon. The hiss and jump of machines made the ground under them lurch. A smell of creosote. One man was washing his face in a barrel of water.

The nuns were moving towards a thirty-yard point on the bridge when the wind began to scatter them. They were thrown against the cement mixers and steam shovels, careering from side to side, in danger of going over the edge.

Some of the men grabbed and enclosed them, pulling leather straps over their shoulders, but two were still loose. Harris and Pomphrey at the far end looked on helplessly as one nun was lifted up and flung against the compressors. She stood up shakily and then the wind jerked her sideways, scraping her along the concrete and right off the edge of the bridge. She disappeared into the night by the third abutment, into the long depth of air which held nothing, only sometimes a rivet or a dropped hammer during the day.

Then there was no longer any fear on the bridge. The worst, the incredible had happened. A nun had fallen off the Prince Edward Viaduct before it was even finished. The men covered in wood shavings or granite dust held the women against them. And Commissioner Harris at the far end stared along the mad pathway. This was his first child and it had already become a murderer.

What People are Saying About This

Russell Banks
Michael Ondaatje's fiction is as original and evocative as any being written today....Brilliantly imaginative.
Maxine Hong Kingston
A beautiful novel....Explodes into fantastic directions.

Meet the Author

Author of eleven books of poetry, four novels and a fictionalized memoir, Michael Ondaatje was born in 1943 in Colombo, capital of the British colony of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Of Tamil, Sinhalese and Dutch descent, he was the youngest of four children. He grew up during the halcyon days of colonial Ceylon on the Kutapitiya tea estate, “the most beautiful place in the world,” as he described in an interview with The Guardian. His mother’s real gift to Michael was her enthusiasm for the arts. Of his father, who served in the Ceylon light infantry, Ondaatje has said: “My father was in tea and alcohol; he dealt in tea and he drank the alcohol.” He died of a brain hemorrhage after Michael had left Sri Lanka, so Michael never got to know his father as an adult. “He is still one of those books we long to read whose pages remain uncut. He was a sad and mercurial figure. There was a lot I didn’t know about him … In all my books there are mysteries that are not fully told.”

When Michael was five his parents separated. His mother soon went to England with two of her children; Michael stayed behind and lived with relatives, joining his mother and siblings at the age of eleven. He relinquished his sarong and donned a tie – an item of clothing he’d never seen before – to attend Dulwich College, whose alumni include writers Graham Swift, P. G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler. (One of Michael’s former teachers expressed surprise when Ondaatje won the Booker, since he had “always seemed more interested in cricket.”) In 1962, at the age of nineteen, he went to Quebec, where his brother Christopher (today a businessman and explorer) was living. It was in Canada that Michael Ondaatje’s writing life began in earnest: “[Y]ou felt you could do anything. I wouldn’t have been a writer if I’d stayed in England … where you feel, what right do you have to do this because of John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney. England felt repressive in the fifties … Moving, you learn twice as much; it doubles you in some way, like living three or four lives.”

Ondaatje obtained a B.A. from the University of Toronto and an M.A. from Queen’s University, then taught at the University of Western Ontario and at York University. In the seventies he edited poetry, produced anthologies and critical works and short documentary films, and began his involvement with the small press Coach House.

Although he was thrust onto the world stage by the tremendous success of The English Patient, Ondaatje, who lives in Toronto, remains an intensely private person. “Privacy is essential,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of writers being interpreted by their personalities – Ginsberg, Layton …You want the book to be read, not the author.” When he won the Booker Prize in 1992, he used the money to inaugurate the Gratiaen award – named after his mother – as an annual literary prize for Sri Lankan writers.

In his writing Ondaatje employs a technique of blurring fact and fiction in an imaginative collage. His longer narrative works, often based on the unorthodox lives of real people, contain fact alongside fiction. For example, in Coming Through Slaughter he relates the real and imagined life of New Orleans jazz musician Buddy Bolden; in Running in the Family, he writes a fictionalized memoir of the unconventional life of his parents and grandparents in colonial Ceylon. Some of Ondaatje’s major influences come from Henri Rousseau paintings, Diego Rivera murals, Sri Lankan temple sculpture and, most of all, the music and rhythms of jazz. “If I could be Fats Waller, I wouldn’t be writing.”

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In the Skin of a Lion 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was assigned to read this book for a post-colonial literature class in Dublin, but I later learned it was the professor's favorite novel and still believe that he secretly assigned it to us as a gift. . . Patrick White, who Ondaatje kills off without much attention in the English Patient, is an ingenius non-character. Through him we experience this fascinating and exciting underground world of Toronto's immigrant working class. We never find out too much about him, but through him we really see how vital our friends and loves are in our lives. . . There is some point in the novel where Clara tells Patrick that 'people are replaced' and Ondaatje makes it true. the sincerity of the flux of the central love story here is this novel's greatest strength. Ovid wrote of one of his mythological characters, 'Never before did one's heart have such a capacity for love.' That's how I feel about Patrick, so incredible is his love for Clara, and for her remarkable replacement. . . the death of Alice Gull is one of the most gut wrenching sequences I've ever read, and it begins so beautifully with some line like 'he had always wanted to know Alice Gull when she was old. . .' God I cry at those first lines every time I read them. . . reading this great book should give you the patience to follow the surreal plot. There is a line in the middle of the novel that explains what the first line of every novel should be. . . when you get to it you'll be glad you did.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ondaatje may well be the best writer today of romantic image, mood and intent. This story is fantastic in the ideal of a Mark Helprin novel and succeeds there competantly. Most perfect, however, in layering Patrick Lewis' discoveries of love for two women over time, building one over the veneer of the other. This and the romantic characters of a richly explained trade, Temelcoff one of the author's best figures to date. An excellent book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I don't agree at all with the gushing praise--sorry, but this book was one of my least favorite of all time. I only finished it because it was a book club selection and I kept hoping I would start to like the book. The characters, I'll admit, are interesting. But their motivation is completely unexplained and some of what they do makes no sense. I really dislike the writer's style; the periodic insertion of sections akin to free verse poetry didn't seem natural, but rather, contrived to show how "singular" or erudite the author is. The plot was plodding at some points, and highly implausable at others. Overall this struck me as a book just trying too hard to be artistic.
pozzo More than 1 year ago
I carry this with me wherever I travel because just a page or 2 reboots me. Always fresh, always amazing. The writing, the vision, is like nothing else. The nun falling off the bridge -- read just that passage early in the book and you will see. It's not what you think. This book completely transcends categories of men's vs women's books. If you can think and imagine this is your book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book back in school...amazing. The novel was very well written and Ondaatje brilliantly illustrates us the lives of the characters. I recall an excerpt describing Nicholas Tem. as he is working on the bridge...best I have read in years. I truly recommend this book and definitely Ondaatje's best so far, and I can't wait for the new one.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Everyone told me this book was really good. I turned page after page waiting for it to get good. It never happened. The plot never went anywhere... Patrick just cries about women the entire time. The writing style was also excruciating to read. It was too fragmented... I'm all for 'leaving things to the imagination', but when the plot has trouble moving along because there is no backbone to the book... you have a problem. Overall bad, bad book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you are looking for a book you can escape into another era, and another place this is the book for you. Ondaaje's characters are intriguing and alive.