“Each person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story.”
Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion
This is, without a doubt, unequivocally, no question, stick-a-fork-in-me-I’m-done-like-dinner one my favourite quotes in the entire canon of English language literature. If you have not read this book, do not pass Go, do not collect $200, and head directly to jail (or your local library/bookstore); if you have not read anything at all by Ondaatje – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, commentary – and you are over the age of 30, go straight to the hospital, get an MRI, then tell the technician, “Shoot me now, please.”
In the Skin of a Lion is a very loose prequel to Ondaatje’s most famous work internationally, The English Patient, but the novel stands on its own two feet just fine. Aside from winning the prestigious Governor General’s Award, it has stood the test of time since being published 30 years ago and will, in my humble opinion, continue to resonate with readers for many years to come. Like, many years to come.
When writing about this novel in an academic paper, Graciela Moreira Slepoy so rightly pointed out:
“As the title of the novel indicates, to take responsibility for one’s own story and for its narration is a way of legitimising and appropriating one’s life in order to compensate for historical omissions. Alice’s explanation of the meaning of the title emphasises the importance of telling personal stories.”
An immigrant himself, Mr. Ondaatje first uprooted his life in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and moved to England in 1954. Eight years later, in 1962, he made his final move, to Canada, and now resides in Toronto.
In the same paper as above, Graciela Moreira Slepoy states that “In the Skin of a Lion narrates forgotten stories of those who contributed to the building of…Toronto, particularly immigrants and marginal[ized] individuals.” In the novel, this primarily centres around two pieces of highly relevant Toronto infrastructure, the Bloor Street Viaduct (Prince Edward Viaduct) and the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, as well as the immigrant workers who built them.
Although a different time period than his own, this was obviously something that Ondaatje could not only sympathize with, but an experience that more than 20 years after first landing in Montreal he still felt passionate about. In 1987, he took this passion and his personal memories as an immigrant, combined them with some intense research carried out at the City of Toronto Archives, and then brought this all together with a compelling plot and beautiful prose.
The result was the publication of one of the most important and enduring pieces of Canadian fiction – and one of its most enjoyable to read.