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review by Linda Rogers
Divisadero. Michael Ondaatje. McClelland & Stewart,
In this world of melting ice floes, Michael Ondaatje, the most
careful of writers, has risked the very edge of a vanishing waterscape.
Divisadero is a novel about separation and the possibility of
finding grace at the end of a dangerous voyage. This is a tricky
business. As the ice separates, Anna, the narrator has one foot
on either side of the divide. Will the book split down the middle
or will Anna miraculously reconcile its parts. I think this depends
on the reader.
The linear reader will have trouble with the shifts in time and
tone, with characters who appear and disappear at the caprice
of circumstance. Like the interior novels of Joyce or Woolf, Diviserado
needs to be experienced. The narrative line, tenuous at the very
least and as full of incredible coincidence as fiction by Thomas
Hardy, is actually a meditation on the various aspects of mercy
and change, as incongruous bed partners as many of Ondaatje’s
Ondaatje is a poet who can’t resist symbolic language.
One such moment embodies the beauty and frustration of Anna’s
quest. When her “sister” Claire seeks shelter with
strangers, she is joined in bed by the family dog. “For
a while, it was still, and then, wanting more space, it pressed
the claws gently, then more firmly, like tuning forks into her
back.” That is an image that jars until the reader accepts
that dogs hear in a different frequency, a range that Claire will
need to access in order to hear her own destiny.
Desiderata might be the title of the sub-text of this picaresque
recitation, as desire is the impetus for movement and change when
men and women rent by circumstance seek comfort in one another.
We are never sure of the degrees of separation between children
who are raised in the same environment. The novel begins in Petaluma,
California, with Anna and Claire, twinned in their nurturing after
both lost their mothers at birth and raised by a caring father.
They are rent in a moment of violence that involves father, sisters
and Coop, an orphaned childhood companion, in an extreme erotic
moment. “What is the nature of love?” the writer,
transparently asks then sets out to discover the meaning of his
More than sisters, Anna and Claire are divided but never separated.
Coop, battered by his jealous surrogate father, becomes a gambler,
the lingering metaphor. When Coop loses his memory in one of the
larger co-incidences of the book, Claire becomes Anna to satisfy
her own childhood fantasies and to heal him. No one is pure in
their motivations. No one is absolutely corrupt. These are real
people whose bottom line is the need to connect physically and
spiritually with the elusive truth of themselves.
Abruptly, the Altmanesque novel moves to France where the re-constituted
Anna is researching the life of the dead poet Lucien Segura, whose
life experiences parallel her own. We must intuit the steps that
have brought her to this symbiotic study. As past becomes present,
we assume that she is finding herself in him. They are after all,
passengers on the same leaky iceberg and redemption comes in the
ways they reveal one another.
This is impressionistic writing, with its revelatory moments
layered or laid down side by side the way cards are dealt on a
table, or photographs are spread out so that life happens frame
by frame. Divisadero is about the ways in which we seek family.
We pick up the cards and see what we have in our hands.
One of the profound realizations of age and experience is that
there is rarely a “One.” Human beings are not Canada
Geese, who mate for life. What we seek in one another is kindness
and the possibility of fitting solace with need, the phenomenal
reality of our existence with the idea of love. We are all islands
of ice in the same ocean, and as they say, “There are many
fish in the sea.” Ondaatje does not resort to engines of
triteness but he does, in his card games, rides on willful horses
and philosophic and literary references, take us to the conclusive
language that his characters are unable to articulate. They are
only human and their job is to connect and survive to the end
of their lives or the world, whichever comes first.
Linda Rogers new novel is The Empress Letters from Cormorant Books.