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Canadian Reader 4x

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

I had meant to include at this point a brief discussion of the recent Canada Reads winner, Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes (published in the U.S. as Someone Knows My Name), but since we're currently on March break at my school, my guest-blogger and colleague Anna, who read the novel, has not yet had a chance to weigh in on it in writing.

In the meantime, I have finished Michael Ondaatje's much-anticipated recent novel, Divisadero, so I'll post an interim entry about it, instead, and hope to have the other post for my next "Canadian Reader" installment.

So, er, my name is Jodi Rice, and I don't really like reading Michael Ondaatje's novels.

There, I've said it. And before the Canadian Literary Police come after me, let me first just say that I appreciate Ondaatje's literary talent immensely. Not for nothing did this novel win the Governor General's Literary Award and short-list for the Giller and Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 2007. Reviews of Ondaatje's work tend to be heavy on superlatives. Every page, every paragraph, every sentence he writes bears close reading for its artistry. And that's part of the problem for me. I get hung up on the beauty of his prose and lose track of his stories, and his stories are intricate, multilayered, richly nuanced.

Divisadero is no exception, with a narrative no less complex than those of his previous novels. It's no surprise that in adapting The English Patient for the screen, screenwriter and director Anthony Minghella had to select one primary thread and stick with it, framing it relatively straightforwardly by flashbacks, to the exclusion of much of the detail that gave the novel the translucent depth and many-threaded storytelling of a Flemish master's painting. Divisadero uses a similar structure of story-within-a-story-within-a-story, overlapped by other stories, often fragmentary, that weave in and out of them. It's the difference between a simple braid and a French braid, which collects strands as it builds, integrating them into the whole in such a way that they seem to disappear as individual strands. Again, I can appreciate the artistry in this technique, but it inevitably distances me and leaves me frustrated.

Remember those posters that consisted of patterns, which, if you stared at them long enough, resolved themselves into 3-D images? I could never see the images. I wear contact lenses, and my eyes would dry out long before the images resolved; I knew it was supposed to be a cool experience, but I had to take the word of people who "got" it. Similarly, I just don't end up "getting" Ondaatje's novels, not on the emotional level I'd like to, anyway.

Intellectually, though, and as an English teacher, I recognize that he's one of the greatest prose artists Canada has. I admire students who tackle his novels and read them thoughtfully. My student who read this novel deeply appreciated the themes of family love and disruption, the ideas of visceral attachment and heart-rending separation that pervade the intertwining stories. The tales that parallel one another in the novel bear the whiff of high romance, resonating in the literary allusions that surface from time to time in the lives of the characters. Many scenes reminded me atmospherically of similar scenes in other Ondaatje books. We begin with an archetypal, solitary, tightly-knit family of father, two daughters, and handsome young farmhand, and end with a solitary author whose life story echoes the losses created by the earlier family's swift and violent disintegration.

To outline any more of the plot would be beside the point, as it would be with most Ondaatje novels. They are more poetry than prose, in many ways, and perhaps that is why I prefer his poetry, especially his one book that more explicitly blends poetry and prose: one of my all-time favorite works of literature is The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.

Next time: The Book of Negroes (U.S. title: Someone Knows My Name)