Michael Ondaatje’s fame skyrocketed from cult favorite to international literary celebrity after his 1992 novel The English Patient won the Booker Prize (for best British, Irish, or Commonwealth novel in English) and was subsequently made into a critically and financially successful Academy Award-winning film by director Anthony Minghella. While his novel Divisadero is not as experimental as early works such as Coming Through Slaughter (1976), it does somewhat mark a return to Ondaatje’s mature modernist form, taking more experimental risks than Anil’s Ghost (2000). Divisadero tells the story of a rancher’s daughter, his adopted daughter, and the boy he takes in to raise, whose small (and to some of them, idyllic) lives together are shattered by one moment of unreasoning violence. The reader is told by the rancher’s daughter, Anna, the central character in the narrative, that she comes from “Divisadero Street.” “Divisadero,” the reader is told, possibly derives from the Spanish word for “division”; if nothing else, this is a novel about the division of a family.
Anna’s mother died giving birth to her daughter. When Anna’s rancher father found that another woman had died in childbirth, leaving a daughter without a home, he decided to adopt the infant as his daughter Claire. A few years later, a nearby family was killed, except for the small son, Coop, who hid beneath the floorboards of the house. Four years older than the girls, he too was brought to the ranch to be raised. Coop never quite fits in, and for much of their lives, Anna and Claire are fascinated with him almost to the point of obsession.
Divisadero makes use of varying points of view. Some sections are written in the first-person from Anna’s perspective, and others are told in the third person from Coop and Claire’s points of view, while the last section is a third-person rendering of the life of writer Lucien Segura. Just as the point of view shifts, so does the novel’s structure. The novel begins in the shared past of Anna, Claire, and Coop and then moves forward in time eighteen years for Anna and Claire; Coop’s journey is shown in fragments depicting life from both a few years after his departure and then years later. The novel, in fact, is so fragmented that some critics have described the book as a collection of novellas, but in truth the novel is much more tightly woven than a collection could be. Motifs and themes return and develop so that later narratives help readers understand the arc of earlier ones. Anna is the character at the eye of the narrative storm; the stories all revolve around her presenceor her absence.
Anna implies, in her opening narrative, that a romantic relationship between her and Coop is almost fated; however, it is also doomed from the moment it begins. Coop, at twenty, has moved to a cabin separated from the main house by more than a mile; sixteen-year-old Anna visits him there, and before long they are entangled. When Anna’s father discovers them having sex, he brutally attacks Coop. Coop’s life is saved only when Anna stabs her father in the back with a sliver of broken glass. Anna’s father leaves Coop half-dead in the middle of a horrific storm to carry Anna back to the house. Anna runs away that very night with her father in pursuit, and Claire must save Coop’s life. Within the day Coop, too, has fled. Neither he nor Anna ever returns.
The narrative then shifts to the future, where thirty-four-year-old Anna is a scholar and writer researching the life of early twentieth century French poet and popular novelist Lucien Segura. She moves into the very house that Segura grew up in, and there she meets Rafael, the son of a gypsy woman and a professional thief who had befriended Segura. Like Coop, Rafael is aloof and quiet in his love, more ephemeral than possessive. In her affair with Rafael and her research into Segura, Anna seems to be trying to recapture both her lover and her fatherindeed, her entire family.
Coop’s story picks up only a few years after the incident at the ranch. In a chapter titled “The Red and the Black,” the reader finds that Coop has become a professional gambler, a poker player. The title is lifted from a nineteenth century novel by Stendhal about a young man’s initiation into the dangerous and manipulative world about him. Second, the title seems...
(The entire section is 1808 words.)