(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In the Skin of a Lion opens on a young Patrick growing up in the wilds of the Canadian wilderness. Patrick lives outside a logging camp with his father, Hazen, a logger and self-taught explosives expert. Hazen, described as “taciturn,” is withdrawn from both Canadian society and his son, instilling in Patrick the sense of being “other” within one’s own culture. One winter night, Patrick is called to the frozen river by a vision of sparkling lights he takes to be fireflies. He finds the immigrant loggers ice skating while holding fistfuls of burning rushes. This is Patrick’s first glimpse of community, and he watches with longing and fascination yet is unable to overcome his own isolation to join them. The men remain remote and anonymous figures representing an ideal of which Patrick is barely cognizant. Only later does Patrick discover that the skaters were Finns. In this way Ondaatje weaves the past, the present, and the future into a temporal labyrinth that connects characters to themselves and to one another.

Chapter 2, “The Bridge,” focuses on Nicholas Temelcoff. Nicholas, a Macedonian immigrant, works the most dangerous job on the construction of the Prince Edward Bridge over the Don River. Suspended in mid-air, he is separated from his fellow workers by twin barriers of language and empty space. Nicholas’s isolation is broken one night when he catches a nun who has been swept off the unfinished bridge by wind. The emotional intimacy engendered by the rescue causes Nicholas to perceive Toronto differently, as if the city has been imbued with the nun’s spirit and beauty. One year later,...

(The entire section is 669 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

According to a brief prefatory note, In the Skin of a Lion is told by a man driving at night from Toronto to a town in rural Ontario. He is weary and worried, and his narrative swerves from one scene to another very much as his car swerves through the moonlit night. Yet he has a good listener, a girl of sixteen.

Patrick Lewis grows up on a farm in eastern Ontario. His father, Hazen Lewis, teaches him how to work with dynamite, blasting mines and breaking up logjams. After his father dies in a mining accident, Patrick goes to Toronto to find work. He becomes a detective or “searcher” whose job is to locate a missing millionaire named Ambrose Small. When he finds Small’s former mistress, she seduces him. They live together, and he comes to love her deeply, but she always says she will leave one day to rejoin Small. One day, she sets out on a train journey from which she never returns.

Meanwhile in Toronto, a young nun is knocked off a new bridge during a freak construction accident. Miraculously, she is caught by a daring worker from Macedonia who saves her life. She has never been so close to a man before, and she decides she will not return to the nunnery. She meets a Finnish immigrant with revolutionary ideas and becomes pregnant by him. A gifted actress and accomplished speaker, she takes part in political rallies and espouses the cause of anarchy: opposition to any exercise of power over the working people. Her lover, Cato, is murdered before their daughter is...

(The entire section is 614 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ondaatje offers two epigraphs for In the Skin of a Lion. One is from the ancient epic of Gilgamesh and refers to the hero’s sorrowful search for his dead friend. The second is from the novelist John Berger; it asserts that no story is the only story. Both epigraphs apply to the multiple threads of narrative in this novel, which in part tells the story of Patrick Lewis’s journey from backwoods Canada to Toronto; of his love affair with an actress, Clara Dickins; his introduction to radical politics; and his later love affair with Clara’s friend Alice Gull. However, the novel also incorporates historical events from the life of Toronto millionaire Ambrose Small, including his mysterious disappearance. Also woven throughout the work are several building projects—a bridge, viaduct, tunnel, and water purification plant—all of which grew from the labor of Italians, Greeks, Finns, and Macedonians—the whole body of immigrants whose sweat built the city.

When Patrick leaves home for the city, he leaves behind his first connections with immigrants—the loggers for whom his father worked as a dynamiter. With Ondaatje’s typical interest in visual effects, one of the novel’s many powerful images is of Finnish loggers, ice skating by night, lit by torches made of flaming cattails. In the city, Patrick meets actress Clara Dickins, and their love affair flourishes despite her position as Ambrose Small’s mistress. When Ambrose...

(The entire section is 522 words.)