Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Review: Divisadero - the new Ondaatje novel out today!

Today is the publication date for Divisadero, the new novel by Michael Ondaatje. It's especially exciting because it comes out in Canada more than a month before its publication in the U.S. and several months before its U.K. debut. So it really does feel like a world premiere! One of the best things about being a book rep, however, is that we get finished books in advance of the pub date, and so I got the chance to read this over the Easter weekend.

The novel begins with an amazingly riveting section as the strong bonds between Anna, her adopted sister Claire, and Coop, a young orphan also adopted into their family, and with whom Anna is having an affair, are completely shattered when Anna's father discovers their relationship and reacts violently. The rest of the novel explores the aftermath of this incident in the lives of Claire, Coop and especially Anna. Coop gets caught up in the dangerous world of professional gambling, and is possibly saved by Claire. Anna moves to France and becomes intrigued both in researching the life of Lucien Segura, a poet who took his own life, and in her relationship with the private and mysterious Rafael.

The writing in this novel is of course everything you'd expect with Ondaatje - poetic, sensual and full of complex images, such as a recurring shard of glass that jolts with its beautifully menacing power and yet also reflects the broken and painful fragmentation of these characters' lives. You'll also recognize some recurring images from The English Patient - Ondaatje loves a good thief, an historical church and a man physically and verbally trapped within his own body. But what really makes this novel intriguing - and has led to some fascinating conversations with my colleagues - is Ondaatje's narrative technique. Throughout the novel, books constantly appear to shed insight on the characters and provide them with inspiration. This, I think is the key to the novel. Anna the writer, learns that, "sometimes we enter art to hide within it." The very title of the novel, Divisadero, is explained as being Spanish for "division" but also deriving from the Spanish word "divisar" - meaning to gaze at something from a distance. And as Anna tells the reader, "I look into the distance for those I have lost, so that I see them everywhere." Is storytelling thus a form of looking "into the distance"? Who really is the narrator of this novel? Do we accept the continual re-appearance of images as just coincidence, or are they a way of rewriting and rethinking the past? (Or hiding within it?) There are enough subtle and intellectual teases in Divisadero to merit multiple readings (and re-readings), which is what makes this such a worthwhile and thoroughly enjoyable read.

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