Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje
|Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje
|Category: Literary Fiction
|Reviewer: Sue Magee
|Summary: Stories of love and loss spread over time and continents make for a remarkable work. If you buy just one book this year then this should be it.
|Date: August 2008
|Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
In northern California a man's wife died giving birth to his daughter. In the same hospital, in the same week another mother died giving birth and the man brought to his home both Anna, his daughter and Claire the daughter of the other woman who had died. Well, they owed him for the death of his wife, didn't they? Both girls were brought up, if rather distantly, by the man but their emotional support came from Coop. He too was an orphan taken in by the farmer. When he was four, the rest of his family had been murdered on the next-door farm. The child hid in the crawl space under the house and emerged to tell the tale a few days later. And so the four lived and worked and loved and it might have continued had it not been for what happened in a few dreadful minutes. Here's how Anna describes it:
... in retrospect something very small, something that might occur within just a square inch or two of a Breughel. But it set fire to the rest of my life.
The clue to the essence of the book is there in the title - Divisadero suggesting division, that which was whole being fractured. It's the name of a street in San Francisco, where Anna once lived, but it isn't the setting for the novel. The settings are a series of places and times presenting scenes, images which you can place together and view as you wish - and then change your view as time and circumstances shift. They are stories of love and loss and memory encompassing the farmer's life in northern California, the gamblers' world of Tahoe and the writer's life in central France. Particularly in France the narrative becomes almost dream-like; on a couple of occasions I found myself drifting away from the book - but not from the story. I listened in my mind to the echoes, the slight connections that might lead down another road. I heard the possibilities.
Ondaatje isn't renowned for character development but here they carried the story perfectly - the sparseness of the father, the sisters who weren't sisters and who separated so easily, so painfully, the survivor of a massacre who lived to become a gambler and the long-dead French writer who saw too much of war and left his wife and family. The personalities are sketched in such a way that our imaginations are not limited to what Ondaatje tells us.
When a story isn't linear, as this isn't, it's necessary to have a lot of faith in the author that there will be sufficient clues to take you where he intends you to go. You need too to trust that you will see them, but I never for a moment doubted Ondaatje's ability. I felt as though I floated free through the story, touching briefly on people's lives. For perhaps the first time I felt that the value of the book was in what I took from it rather than what it gave. I found it as ultimately satisfying as any I have read for many years.
Reviewing a bad book is easy. Reviewing a good book is a pleasure but the hardest book is the one that you find exceptional. Whatever you write will never quite do the book justice and there is always a sense of having failed despite having done your best. All I can really say about this book is that if you read just one book this year then this should be the one.
I'd like to thank those generous people at Bloomsbury for sending this book to The Bookbag. We also have a review of The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje.
If this book appeals then we think that you might also enjoy Notes From An Exhibition by Patrick Gale.
You can read more book reviews or buy Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje at Amazon.com.
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