Author: Michael Ondaatje
Publication Year: 2007
Source: Purchased for myself from Chapters
A few years ago, in my fourth year of university (last year of my undergrad), I took a seminar-level course based entirely on the works of Michael Ondaatje. It was one of the most fun courses I ever took, and consisted of about fifteen students and a professor sitting in a circle talking for three hours a week about one book. (Or, in later weeks, about one book and its connections to Ondaatje’s other books.) The only book of his that we didn’t talk about was Divisadero, simply because it wasn’t published until a couple months after the course ended.
Given how much I loved reading all of Ondaatje’s other books, particularly In the Skin of a Lion, it’s a little surprising that it took me this long to get around to buying his most recent novel. Now that I’m getting back into the swing of things, though, I made sure to include it in my last Chapters order. I’ve been reading it since it showed up!
Now, into the thick of things.
Divisadero is a book about families, love, loss, and and self-reflection. It starts out telling the story of a strange family living on a farm in California – Anna, her father, her “sister” Claire, and their farm hand, Coop. Coop was the child of a neighbour whose parents were brutally murdered before the girls were born, and Anna’s mother brought him into their home. When Anna was born, her mother died, and her father ended up bringing Claire home as well, whose mother had also died in the hospital. It was really beautiful watching the story unfold of this family growing up together, and I could barely put the book down.
In a sudden act of violence, though, this story is taken away. From this point on, the story splits off into multiple narratives. Anna, Claire, and Coop each have their own voice at one point or another, though largely it is told from Anna’s point of view. Each of them spends some time reflecting back on things, but mostly narrating events in their present and sometimes connecting them to the shared past. I found it a bit hard to grasp where things were supposed to be going at this point, sort of like the characters had been ripped away from me involuntarily and I had to scramble to catch up and put the pieces back together.
This got even more frustrating farther along in the novel. Two of the characters meet back up (I won’t give away which ones), but not in a satisfying way. After that, the main arc of the novel strays even farther from its beginnings, seeming to circle around the backstory of a dead author that Anna is studying in France, right back to his childhood. We’re suddenly introduced to a whole new set of characters, all the while hoping that the other ones that we loved will return.
By the time I finished the book, I was actually rather frustrated. I’m one of those people that is significantly character- and plot-driven, and I wanted to know how it ended for them, dammit! I sat down to write this review, and was fully prepared to write about how I normally love Ondaatje’s writing, but that this book had fallen flat for me …
… and then something strange happened. I started to realize that I was supposed to feel frustrated with the loss of these characters, with having them ripped away from me.
There’s this point somewhere right in the middle of the novel where Ondaatje draws our attention to this steeple in the French town that is being re-constructed, and which is very strange – it curves in around on itself. That’s really the turning point in the novel, where the characters start to look back and reflect, and where the narrative arcs into the past instead of continuing on in the present. It was like Ondaatje was trying to pull the reader into the history of the characters and see where they had come from instead of where they were going. Just as the characters felt the loss of each other, we felt the loss of their presence in the book, and also the loves and losses of the characters that had come before them.
In the end, I’m still frustrated that I don’t get to find out “how it ends”, but I’m also still mulling over the twists and turns and literary style that brought me full circle and then back again, and that’s a sign to me of a VeryGoodBook (TM).
Divisadero is definitely a novel I would recommend to others, and even one that I will probably go back and re-read myself several times.
There’s just something about Ondaatje that pulls at your heart strings like nothing else.