Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 27, 2010

In the Skin of a Lion (1987), by Michael Ondaatje

I haven’t read anywhere near enough Canadian literature – and I should have, because Australian and Canadian authors share an interest in themes of cultural significance.  Our literatures are concerned with treatment of indigenous peoples, exploration of a vast unknown interior, immigrant culture, and belated independence from British colonial heritage.  It was Kevin from Canada’s essay about this last year which prompted me to scour bookshops and libraries for books from Canada but apart from Margaret Atwood there’s not much about – so I was very pleased indeed to chance upon In the Skin of a Lion.

In the Skin of a Lion is Michael Ondaatje’s second novel and the predecessor to The English Patient which won the Booker Prize and was made into a stunning film starring Ralph Fiennes.   It’s an intriguing exposé of the immigrant dispossessed who built the city’s infrastructure in the 1920s.  As the city is transformed by their labour so too must Ondaatje’s characters transform themselves and adapt to their new lives but they do this in unxpected ways.   The book features disconnected narratives which intersect in fleeting ways, as if to mirror the way immigrants flit in and out of mainstream society without being able to make real connections.  More than once characters conceal themselves with ‘new skins’.  Time shifts, the narrative swirls and the reader has to work at making sense of it.

I admit that I struggled with the novel a bit, but I think  it’s worth the effort.  (The climax is stunning. )  When you read The Epic of Gilgamesh, from which the title derives, there are gaps, because not all of the epic has survived the ravages of time.  Some translations attempt to infer the missing bits; others leave it blank.  I prefer this, because I am comfortable with ‘not knowing’.  I accept that ancient texts are necessarily incomplete and that what we know about their context is fragmentary and elusive.  Similarly with this novel, once I realised that the author was deliberately withholding plot elements rather than me having missed them somewhere in the discontinuous narrative, I was content to simply let the story unfold.  But it is a book that has to be read with concentration or the pieces aren’t going to fall into place.

Still, I don’t imagine that I have fully understood this book.  (I’d like to read it again, but it’s due back at the library today).  Ondaatje hints at but does not explain the disjunction between what we might infer and what we might really know about the immigrant experience – even someone like me, who as a child has been an immigrant on two continents cannot hope to know what it is really like for an adult disempowered and alienated by the experience of not belonging.


Some characters from The English Patient, (Caravaggio the thief, Hana the orphan & Patrick Lewis) feature in In the Skin of a Lion but to my mind, it is Nicholas Temelcoff who is the most unforgettable of a fascinating cast of characters.  Like everyone else, he is an outsider in Toronto.  He is building a bridge, a symbol of unification, but he is separate, alien, and a stranger.  He can’t communicate because he has not yet mastered the language of his new home.  It is one thing to struggle to communicate when briefly a tourist in a strange country; it is another to deal with this on a day-today basis.  As I found when I spent time at university in Indonesia, it is exhausting, frustrating and incredibly lonely.

Wikipedia tells me that there are some events in the novel which actually happened but they seem surreal.  Early in the novel, a nun falls from an unfinished spar of the uncompleted bridge.  This did actually happen: it was quite discomfiting, reading again about the seeming inevitability of deaths in bridge building so soon after reading Simon Cleary’s The Comfort of Figs.  Temelcoff rescues her, breaking his shoulder, but he simply disappears into the night as the world moves on, no longer fearful because ‘the worst, the incredible, had happened.  A nun had fallen off the Prince Edward Viaduct before it was even finished. (p31).  Then he goes back to work, as if nothing has happened, and this is a reminder that extraordinary things happen in the lives of our migrants, but we don’t know about them.  (Rosa Cappiello wrote about this, but her novel was short-lived and it had very little impact in Australia.)

There are many small gems in this book.  Patrick mourning Alice’s death recalls the River Styx.

Now there is a moat around her he will never cross again.  He will not even cup his hands to drink its waters.  (p164)

The descriptions of working conditions reminded me of those in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

Dye work took place in the courtyard next to the warehouse.  Circular pools had been cut into the stone – into which the men leapt waist-deep within the reds and ochres and greens, leapt in embracing the skins of recently slaughtered animals.  In the round wells four-foot in diameter they heaved and stomped ensuring the dye went solidly into the pores of the skin that had been part of a live animal the previous day.  And the men stepped out in colours up to their necks, pulling wet hides out after them so it appeared they had removed the skin from their own bodies.  They had leapt into different colours as if into different countries. 

…They were the dyers.  They were paid one dollar a day.  Nobody could last in that job more than six months and only the desperate took it.

…For the dyers the one moment of superiority came in the showers at the end of the day.  They stood under the hot pipes, not noticeably changing for two or three minutes – as if, like an actress unable to return to the real world from a role, they would be forever contained in that livid colour, only their brains free of it.  And then the blue suddenly dropped off, the colour disrobed itself from the body, fell in one piece to their ankles, and they stepped out, in the erotica of being made free.

What remained in the dyers’ skin was the odour that no woman in bed would ever lean towards. (pp131-2)

Early on Ondaatje warns his readers about the ‘chaos and tumble’ of his novel, but that it will be worth it.

Only the best art can order the chaotic tumble of events. Only the best can realign chaos to suggest both the chaos and order it will become. Within two years of 1066, work began on the Bayeux Tapestry, Constantin the African brought Greek medicine to the western world. The chaos and tumble of events. The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.’ Meander if you want to get to town. (p146)

The author keeps his promise.

Pamila Payne has written a thoughtful review of this book at MashMagazine.

Author: Michael Ondaatje
Title: In the Skin of a Lion
Publisher: Vintage International 1987
ISBN: 9780679772668
Source: Kingston Library


  1. Despite the critical and sales success of his later novels, this is my favorite Ondaatje work — and I think this review does a very good job of pointing out why. I feel that the author used his own immigrant experience to very good effect in looking back at a previous generation. I should also admit that I have been thinking about this book a lot lately since reading (and being very impressed by) Ghosted by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, a first novel where the Bloor Street Viaduct again has a significant “role”. I have In the Skin of a Lion earmarked for a reread in the near future.


  2. Interesting, isn’t it, that writers have begun to look with interest at the infrastructure of our cities and wonder about the human cost of its construction? In a previous post about Simon Cleary’s book about the construction of the Story Bridge in Brisbane (The Comfort of Figs) I referred to a BBC series called The Seven Wonders of the Industrial Age -I wonder if perhaps this series was a trigger to the imagination?


  3. I read this book for school, and loved it a surprising amount (for an assigned read). We had to do an assignment on it, and your review provided helpful insight, so I hope you don’t mind that I used your perspective to back up my own beliefs (credited, of course!).


    • I don’t mind at all:) I’m pleased to hear that your teachers were able to make it an enjoyable book for you!


  4. […] 1987: In the Skin of a Lion, see my review […]


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