The story covers thirty years in the life of Patrick Lewis, from childhood to the attempted bombing in 1938. It takes only six hours to narrate, about as long as the novel takes to read. The narrative is confusing, ostensibly because Patrick is tired but also because Ondaatje deliberately throws the reader off balance. He offers the novelist’s equivalent of a filmmaker’s extreme close up. He provides much sensory information, as Patrick works with his hands, but little generalization. This forces the reader to reconstruct the action and re-create the plot.
Patrick is the main character, and five of the novel’s seven chapters are told from his point of view. Of the remaining chapters, one is told from several points of view, including Alice’s, and the other from Caravaggio’s point of view. The novel’s narrator knows what Patrick knows by the time he takes Hana on the night drive. Yet the narrator knows more, including what Patrick will later read in the Riverside Library in Toronto and what Ondaatje will learn as he does research for the novel. The story is Patrick’s, and it becomes Hana’s, but the words are Ondaatje’s.
Patrick is also the most fully realized character. When there is dialogue, he is usually taking part. By contrast, most of other characters are two-dimensional, painted with a few simple strokes of the brush. Patrick’s father, Hazen, is a farmworker who seeks a better career in explosives and is hoist with his own petard. Ambrose Small is a “jackal.” Rowland Harris, the commissioner of public works, is a visionary who turns out to have humble origins. Temelcoff is a daredevil who dreams of owning a bakery. Hana is a good child on the brink of adulthood.
All these characters belong to their time and place. They serve to make “Upper America” what it became by World War II. If there is some irony in the minor characters’ stories, if they are somehow living in the wrong time and place, that is part of the conundrum of existence as Patrick reflects on it.