Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Ondaatje’s first novel, Running in the Family (1982), tells the story of Ondaatje’s origins in Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka). It shows how a young person is formed by the stories he or she hears, especially when family members are dead or absent. (Ondaatje’s parents divorced when he was a small child.) In the Skin of a Lion shows the same interest in a family’s traditions, its “hand-me-downs.” Patrick is not Hana’s biological father or even, perhaps, her legal stepfather; one learns only that he loved her mother and wanted to spend his life with them. Caravaggio is not “family” in any proper sense, only a former jailmate of Hana’s guardian. They are, however, representative of Toronto’s ethnic diversity.

Like many Torontonians, Ondaatje drove into town on a freeway built along a river that runs into Lake Ontario. Like other drivers, he admired the Bloor Street Viaduct, which he drove under as he crossed the city’s main east-west artery. He liked the design and wondered about the people who built the city’s infrastructure. Like his “searcher,” Patrick, he went to public libraries. He read about Small, the theatrical impressario who financed the viaduct, and about Harris, who supervised its construction. He found an account of Temelcoff, who worked on the project and who was still alive in the 1980’s.

After the first draft, he despised Small, whom he calls a “jackal,” and was bored by Harris....

(The entire section is 407 words.)