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In Praise Of Ondaatje's Gloriously Intoxicating 'Lion'

by Kamila Shamsie
May 12, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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There are certain books that I claim to love and that I recommend to many of my friends, but it's not really love, it's just appreciation.

I know this because there are other books that I do truly deeply love. I love them so much that I can't risk giving them to friends who might not adore them as well — how could I be sure the friendship will survive such a blow? In the end, it seems safer to keep those books for myself.

And yet, it is also a quality of love to want to announce it from the rooftops. So here I am, telling anyone who will listen, of my love for Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion.

Many people know Ondaatje as the author of The English Patient, but how many of you are aware that In the Skin of a Lion is a prequel of sorts to that novel? The characters of the young nurse, Hana, and the wounded thief, Caravaggio, both appeared first in this book.

It's a slim novel, fewer than 300 pages, yet the gorgeous writing style is so condensed that it has a degree of richness that few books can match.

It's a book about lovers, but it's also about anarchists and actresses, thieves and bridge-builders, migrants and mavericks.

And it's a book of many moods. There is real anger in it about the way the powerful take advantage of those who work the hardest; there is incredible tenderness between friends and lovers; there are flashes of unexpected humor; and there are some truly heart-stopping moments.

Binding it all together is writing filled with the most glorious, startling images. One of my favorites is the vision of a nun falling off a bridge at night like a "black garbed bird," her plummeting body illuminated by the light spraying down from a flare.

In the world of this novel, there is no small talk, no passages your eye skims over. The characters are full of passion. Unexpected events keep happening without seeming contrived. Tiny details acquire great significance.

It's as though Ondaatje is showing us the world through a magic magnifying glass, which enlarges everything that is vital and interesting, and obliterates all that is dull. When I read it, every nerve ending that has been de-sensitized by an onslaught of news and facts in the "real world" suddenly starts to feel love and anger, terror and wonder more passionately than before.

When sitting down to think about how to convey my love for this book, I tried to calculate how many times I've read it, but I can't. It long ago stopped being one of those books I need to read from beginning to end and instead is a book I keep by my bedside at all times. I have one copy in London and one copy in Karachi, so that no matter which of my homes I'm in, I can enter the intoxicating world Ondaatje creates.

So now I've done it: I've gone public with the object of my affection.

I have to admit — it makes me nervous. If you read the book, maybe you'll tell other people about it. Or maybe, like me, you'll want to keep it for yourself, until the day you can hold it in no longer and then you'll shout it out from the rooftops or over the airwaves.

You Must Read This is produced by Ellen Silva.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

In the Skin of a Lion
By Michael Ondaatje
Paperback, 256 pages
Vintage
List price: $13.95

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