In the Skin of a Lion

by Michael Ondaatje

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Official histories, news stories surround us daily, but the events of art reach us too late, travel languorously like messages in a bottle. (p. 145)

In the Skin of a Lion is a novel that tells the story of a young Canadian man living in the work-in-progress that is the city of Toronto. It is also a novel that, told in several voices, does the work of deconstructing how history is written and made official through an investigation into the past.

The book is based on many true stories that Ondaatje uses in his “singular” story for two reasons: to show history as partially a fiction, and to show that there is no one story that can count as the singular, official account of “how things were.” The novel’s deployment of a multi-faceted narrative technique can be likened to Cubist paintings; the fragmentary nature of the novel's form is analogous to the Cubist obliteration of unity. In this way, reading the text means we have to “meander if [we] want to get to town” (p. 146). There is nothing revealed absolutely, and nothing absolutely revealed. For example, our belated discovery that the nun is Alice Gull provides one clear instance of narrative continuity being fragmented; the same goes for the gap of ninety-two pages between learning of Alice's death and discovering the manner in which she died.

I have taught you that the sky in all its zones is mortal… Let me now re-emphasize the extreme looseness of the structure of all objects. (p. 135 [spoken in a conversation between Alice and Patrick])

Like history, truth is a multitude of stories that seeks chronology but is anything but coherent; like history, all truth is a matter of choice, and how we choose to perceive things. So too is the cityscape at the heart of the novel multitudinous in nature. It is multicultural in structure, while the structures being built are also multiple and in varying states of completion. In the same way, the narratives are spliced and discontinuous; we are not settled on a single reality of the novel that exists on its own, independent of the individual experiences of the myriad characters.

Perhaps it doesn’t even matter who is constructing the narrative—because all meaning is an assemblage of meanings, as well as silences. The canvas of the text is left partially blank in spots as to shift the focus onto the observer, who is meant to complete the composition themselves; like Hana, who is forced to gather the threads of the story Patrick tells her on their drive to Marmora, we need to work to assemble events in order to find meaning and make sense.

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