Reviews

Divisadero

Michael Hayward

“Everything is collage,” a character observes in Divisadero (McClelland & Stewart), Michael Ondaatje’s first novel in seven years. This is an apt metaphor for Ondaatje’s fiction style as well, for each novel reads as if a collection of his poems had jostled against each other until they’d felted together sufficiently to form a story from the parts. In Divisadero, two separate stories interweave and overlap. One is set thirty years ago in the Sonoma Valley of California, when an act of violence shatters the lives of Coop, a young farmhand, and Claire and Anna, two teenage girls living with their father on an isolated ranch. The other story plays out across the landscape of southwest France, with episodes that flash back and forth in time. This is a novel of romance in the older sense of the word, a story filled with larger-than-life characters: cowboys and gold miners; gamblers and gypsies; poets and thieves (it is no coincidence that two of Divisadero’s characters fall in love while reading the novels of Alexandre Dumas to each other). Some find Ondaatje’s novels difficult to unravel (a number of readers reportedly found The English Patient confusing, and were grateful that the movie version “straightened it all out”); others simply can’t get enough, and excavate the text in search of Ondaatje’s striking images: the loggers skating with cattail torches from In the Skin of a Lion; the Bedouin healer enveloped by small vials of medicine in The English Patient; the truck driver nailed to an asphalt road in Anil’s Ghost. Divisadero adds its share of vivid visuals to this treasury: one character in a gold-mining crew on the Russian River rides a suction hose that thrashes like a cracked whip; another balances on a single spike within a church spire that is undergoing renovations. Collage it may well be, but Divisadero’s fabric is studded with such gems.

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