I’m teaching this one to a lively, engaged and curious class of undergraduates. It’s safe to say it’s great (because why else would I pick it for the syllabus?), but also that I read it with a different set of questions circling my brain than I might have otherwise. Questions like: how will I teach this? And what do I want my students to know at the end of two classes discussing this text? And how can I possibly sustain a rich conversation with 100+ students on a novel this beautiful and complex?
So with those caveats, I’ll say that if you haven’t read Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, I’m not sure what you’re waiting around for. The book’s been out for years, it’s won all the prizes, you’re here on this site right now (when instead you should be reading the novel).
The frame narrative has Patrick Lewis driving with his daughter Hana to meet his lover, Clara. While in the car he tells Hana the story of meeting Clara, and the attendant threads of stories that surround it. We witness the literal building of Toronto with the construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct and the Waterworks. We follow immigrant labourers in the dangerous work of building Toronto, and the way official history forgets (or ignores) their stories. We see Patrick engaged in union organizing, and the tremendous losses and suffering that accompany and propel this work.
Ondaatje is a poet. So the whole novel is gorgeous. Writing that makes you weak in the knees. And a story that leaves you aware at the end of your role in hearing it.
How then to teach it? (stay tuned)