There is no disputing the literary skill of Michael Ondaatje. His works have been captivating readers for decades. However, it would be unreasonable for anyone to expect every work any artist creates to be extraordinary. And such is the case, in my opinion, with In the Skin of a Lion.
It is an ambitious novel which encompasses the lives of several immigrant workers in Toronto, Ontario, Canada during the early 20th century, in particular those involved in the construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct, and the Harris Water Treatment plant. From a purely historical perspective it is fascinating, because Ondaatje reveals a few of the true stories from the era, such as a disappearance of Ambrose Small, a nun falling from a bridge, the murder of labour union organizers, and other such events of the era.
From a literary perspective, the novel doesn’t hold up against much of Ondaatje’s other work. Because of the scope of the subject matter, stories are somehow incomplete, leaping from one to the next without any comfortable connection or segue. The prose remains gorgeous, drawing in the reader so that events lift off the page. But there is a sense of disconnect and disorientation as Ondaatje abruptly moves from one character’s life to another.
My comments, however, pale in the face of the fact the novel was shortlisted for the 1987 Governor General’s Award.
Is the novel worth reading? Absolutely, if for no other reason than to explore some of Toronto’s history.