This evening I took down a much-beloved book off the shelf after repeatedly failing to get past the first page of a depressing memoir. The well-read volume creases open onto In the Skin of a Lion, a novel I love so much that for a few years I kept an extra copy of it around just so that one day I could pass it on without the heartache of loss. It’s been a little over a decade since I last permitted myself the pleasure of rereading it, and still: how much finer it is than its more famous sequel (and the film! ugh, the film).
I find that I have a spotty memory for plot, so certain moments still have the capacity to surprise me.
Walking on the bridge were five nuns.
And here I am, the dutiful reader, just as shocked as the characters to find them up there. This time around I catch myself laughing aloud every now and then. Was it funny back then as well, or have I gotten less serious with age?
Critics are wont to call Ondaatje’s prose ‘poetic’ or ‘lyrical,’ but how do I convey the way his words fill my chest? Although some plot points escape my recollection, certain phrases, sentences—even entire passages—return to me like old friends. His prose achieves the memorable quality of verse without resorting to the cheap trick of rhyme. Maybe this is because his writing also manages to evoke such vivid scenes in the reader’s mind. I am mostly haunted by the novel’s strange, quiet, and utterly spellbinding images: a boy and his father working a rope together to save a cow from drowning; loggers skating over a frozen river, holding flaming cattails to illuminate the night.
Lest I rob you of the pleasures of a virgin read, I won’t say any more. And please don’t look at any professional reviews beforehand, either. You may only be put off by silly descriptions of it as a ‘postmodern novel.’ Don’t get the wrong idea: In the Skin of a Lion is neither pretentious nor difficult to get through. It isn’t beach material, exactly, but it is perfect for a quiet weekend at home or away. I hope you read the stories as the character Hana hears them, “under six stars and a moon.”