In the Skin of a Lion

by Michael Ondaatje

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In this novel set in early twentieth-century Canada, Michael Ondaatje chronicles the radicalization of a young working man, Patrick Lewis, which leads him to a path of domestic terrorism through bombing. The author follows Patrick from his childhood in rural Canada to his adult life in Toronto, where he joins a demolition crew on a public works improvement project. After his own experiences and those of other laborers connect him with radical labor activism, he embarks on a bombing campaign. While his actions cause mayhem and Patrick serves time in jail, he survives to tell his story. His relationship with his step-daughter Hana provides the frame for the novel, as he tells her the story while they are in a car together.

The novel opens with this frame. Patrick has become determined to become a genuine father to sixteen-year-old Hana. As they drive north from Toronto to meet Clara, the former love of Patrick’s life, he tells Hana about his relationship with Alice, her mother; the events that led up the bombings; and his friendship with Caravaggio, a thief he befriended in prison.

Patrick’s had learned explosives during his logging-camp upbringing, where father made explosives to remove stumps. The limited rural opportunities led the teenager to the city. Initially locating work searching for missing persons, he is thrown into the sharply class-divided urban world, and falls in love with Clara, who leaves him for an ultra-wealthy boyfriend. Patrick learns to loathe the upper-class, considering them parasites on the workers. Taking a job in demolition on a tunnel-construction crew, he met other organizers who had even more radical views.

The stories of other working people, especially those who built the infrastructure of modern Toronto, alternate and later connect Patrick’s tale. In particular, Nicholas Temelcoff, a Macedonian immigrant, plays crucial roles in building a massive bridge. One night Nicholas finds a woman in the water; she is a former nun, Alice, who is Hana’s mother. Tying together the diverse strands, Ondaatje shows how Alice entered radical politics and later met Alice. When Nicholas opens a bakery, it becomes the social center for the other characters who likewise reside in the immigrant neighborhood.

Patrick’s hatred for the wealthy connects with his radicalization after Alice is killed; he blows up a dock. Caught and convicted, while incarcerated he meets and befriends Caravaggio, who escapes from jail. His ideas unchanged, however, upon his release he plots another bombing with Caravaggio’s. Finally he is unable to carry it out, and instead turns to his role in caring for Hana—the point where the novel began.

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