In the Skin of a Lion
is a novel by Canadian
writer Michael Ondaatje
. It was first published in 1987 by McClelland and Stewart
. The novel fictionalises the lives of the immigrants whose contributions to building Toronto
in the early 1900s never became part of the city's official history. Ondaatje illuminates the investment of these settlers in Canada, through their labour, while remaining "outsiders" to mainstream society. In the Skin of a Lion
is thus an exposé of the migrant condition. "It is a novel about the wearing and the removal of masks; the shedding of skin, the transformations and translations of identity. lt was nominated for the Governor General's Award
for English Language Fiction in 1987. Ondaatje's later and more famous novel The English Patient
is, in part, a sequel to In the Skin of a Lion
; continuing the characters of Hana and Caravaggio, as well as revealing the fate of this novel's main character, Patrick Lewis.
An important aspect of the novel is its depiction of Toronto in the 1920s. Ondaatje spent many months in the archives of the City of Toronto and newspapers of the era. Prominence is given to the construction of Toronto landmarks, such as the Prince Edward Viaduct, commonly known as the Bloor Street Viaduct, and the R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, and focuses on the lives of the immigrant workers. The plot incorporates a number of true stories of the time, such as the fall of a nun from a bridge, the disappearance of Ambrose Small and the murder of labour union organizers Rosvall and Voutilainen.
The structure of the novel may be described as postmodern in that Ondaatje uses many voices, images, and re-organizes time to tell the stories. Thematically, the book may be categorized as post-colonial with its focus on immigrants and their native cultures and languages.
The novel's title is a line from The Epic of Gilgamesh.
The first chapter, "Little Seeds," describes the growing years of the main character, Patrick Lewis, and plants the seeds for his subsequent actions in the novel. For example, as a young boy in Depot Creek, Ontario, Patrick watches the loggers
arriving in town in the winter, working in the mills
in the other seasons, and skating on the frozen river. Patrick's father, Hazen Lewis becomes a dynamiter
and is meticulous in washing his clothes each evening to remove remnants—little seeds—of explosives on his apparel. These elements are the seeds of the subsequent narrative: Depot Creek, the loggers skating, learning about dynamite, etc.
"The Bridge" deals with the construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct
, which will link eastern Toronto with the center of the city and will carry traffic, water and electricity across the Don Valley. Rowland Harris
, the city's Commissioner of Public Works, and Pomphrey, a prominent architect, often visit the bridge at night. One night, some nuns accidentally wander onto the unfinished bridge and one falls off. Nicholas Temelcoff, a worker on the bridge, saves a nun, dislocating his arm in the process. The nun relocates his shoulder and removes her veil to create a makeshift sling for his arm. In turn, he offers her brandy, compliments, and a new lease on life. Temelcoff confides in the nun, telling her about his scars. He eventually falls asleep and wakes to find a doctor treating his arm and the nun gone.
As a young man, Patrick leaves the profession that killed his father and sets out to find the vanished millionaire Ambrose Small
. This leads him to Small's mistress Clara Dickens, and to a relationship with her. Eventually, Patrick loses interest in finding Small, hoping only to remove Clara from Small. Clara tells Patrick that she will leave him to go after Small and warns him not to follow her. Patrick is broken hearted
. Three years later Clara's friend Alice unexpectedly arrives. Alice shows Patrick great tenderness and tells him that Clara's mother might know where Clara is. Patrick sets out to search for Clara. On meeting Clara's mother, Patrick learns that Clara and Small are living in his old hometown. Patrick finds Small living in a house owned by a timber company and Small attempts to set him on fire—once by dropping kerosene
on him and then by throwing a Molotov cocktail
. Patrick manages to escape to his hotel room and is visited by Clara, who dresses his wounds and makes love to him before returning to Small.
Palace of Purification
In 1930, Patrick is working as a dynamiter on a tunnel under Lake Ontario
, a project of Commissioner Rowland Harris. Patrick rents an apartment in a Macedonian
neighborhood. He is accepted into the neighborhood and is invited by Kosta, a fellow dynamiter, to a gathering at the Waterworks—a place where various nationalities gather for secret political discussions and entertainment. Patrick witnesses a performance in which an actor repeatedly smashes her hand against the stage and rushes forward to help her. He recognizes her as Alice Gull. His act of helping her turns out be part of the show. Patrick visits Alice and learns about Hana, her nine-year-old daughter. They become lovers. Patrick finds work in a leather company through Alice's friends and meets Nicholas Temelcoff, now a baker. On studying the bridge, Patrick learns about the nun that had fallen off, whose body was never found. He makes the connection after talking with Temelcoff and promises to look after Hana.
Patrick travels by train, north of Huntsville
. He takes a steamer to a Muskoka
hotel frequented by the rich, carrying nothing but a black suitcase. He burns down the hotel, then leaves on a small boat. Arriving at an island, he meets the blind Elizabeth. We learn that Alice has died and Patrick has committed this crime out of anger. Patrick swims out to a boat. He knows he will be caught by the authorities and takes the time to recuperate and dry out his clothes.
Three prisoners, Buck, Lewis and Caravaggio, are painting the roof of a jail at Kingston
. Patrick and Buck paint Caravaggio in the blue of the roof so he can hide and escape. He steals new clothes and changes his dressing. Jumping a milk-train, he makes his way north toward cottage country. He has a scar from an attack from which Patrick saved him by yelling out a square dance call. Caravaggio recalls his first robbery, in the course of which he broke his ankle while retrieving a painting, so he had hidden in a mushroom factory where a young woman named Giannetta helped him recover, with whom he had escaped by dressing as a woman. Caravaggio enters the cottage of a woman whom he met on the lake and calls his wife to let her know he's all right. After talking to the cottage owner, he returns to his brother-in-law's house, reuniting with Giannetta.
Four years later, Patrick is released from prison and meets Temelcoff at the Geranium Bakery. Hana, now sixteen, has been living with Temelcoff's family. Patrick takes responsibility for Hana. One night, she wakes him to say that Clara Dickens has called. She tells him that Small is dead and asks him to pick her up from Marmora
Realizing that the water supply is vulnerable to being cut off or poisoned, Patrick guards Waterworks, owned by Roland Harris. Caravaggio introduces Patrick to his wife. They fraternize at a party for the rich, then steal a yacht from a couple they chloroform. Patrick intends to dynamite the Filtration Plant with Caravaggio's help. Patrick enters the plant through the water intake. He places dynamite about the plant and carries the detonating box to Harris' office. Patrick tells Harris how Alice Gull was killed and learns that she accidentally picked up the wrong bag, containing dynamite. Patrick falls asleep and in the morning Harris asks the police to defuse the bombs and bring a nurse for Patrick.
Patrick awakes and goes with Hana to retrieve Clara. At Hana's urging, Patrick tells her about Clara. Patrick asks Hana to drive to Marmora. The book ends with him saying "lights."
Awards and recognition