Thursday, October 11, 2018

Book 150: In The Skin Of A Lion

"How can she who had torn his heart open at the waterworks with her art now lie like a human in his arms? Or stand catatonic in front of bananas on Eastern Avenue deciding which bunch to buy? Does this make her more magical? As if a fabulous heron in flight has fallen dead at his feet and he sees the further wonder if its meticulous construction. How did someone conceive of putting this structure of bones and feathers together, deciding on the weight of beak and skull, and give it the ability to fly?"

Dates read: June 4-9, 2017

Rating: 6/10

What does it mean for a piece of media, like a book or a movie, to be "good"? Does it mean it's artistically accomplished? Excellent on a technical level? And what point does the degree to which you as the audience enjoyed it enter into it? Should it? As someone who loves books and movies, this is a question I find myself struggling with regularly. For example, in what will likely be an unpopular opinion, I did not at all like watching Goodfellas. Objectively, it's a very well-constructed movie and I can understand why it's so admired. But I hated it. I wouldn't watch it again if you paid me. Well, it depends on how much, but it wouldn't be cheap.

I read Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient a few years ago, and I felt much the same way about it as I did reading his earlier work, In The Skin of a Lion. It's beautifully written, poetic and lush. It has powerful themes, love and belonging and the building of a major city. But I never connected to either book. In The Skin of a Lion is told in a not-quite-linear format and has a dreamlike quality. When you remember that the story is framed as though it's being told by one person to another during a journey, this makes more sense. Its primary focus is Patrick Lewis, a man who grew up in rural Canada doing ranching and demolition work alongside his father (his mother was long since gone). The father was a solitary, taciturn man, and Patrick grows up to be much the same.

Patrick's adult life is presented to us as the story of his relationships with two women, both actresses: Clara, who he meets when he takes a job looking for her vanished boyfriend, and Alice, a friend of Clara's who he reconnects with after Clara has herself disappeared and after Alice has had a daughter, Hana. There are stories between and around those relationships, and stories about other characters who are more tangential to the plot, all loosely connected through Patrick.

I've said before that I'm a reader who tends to be drawn to character-driven stories, which means this book was sometimes a struggle for me. The sheer beauty of the writing helped me get at least something out of it, but the characters were profoundly underdeveloped. Patrick is the central character, and although he's written as being pretty emotionally closed-off, it's frustrating how opaque he is. The other characters are barely people at all...the women especially seem much more like plot devices than actual humans, but the men aren't much better off. For plot devotees, there's not much here either...what I was left with by the end of the book was less the sense of a story than a series of beautiful, haunting images. Like a Malick film.

I usually try to write my reviews of book club selections before the actual discussion so that my ideas are my ideas, but I didn't quite make it with this one and I think talking about it with other people gave me a new frame of reference for it. There are two epigraphs introducing the book, and the one that I'll focus on is from The Epic of Gilgamesh. When you think about this novel as consciously echoing the style of an epic, some of its shortcomings make more sense: the clunky dialogue, the characters that feel more like archetypes than people, the sense of mystery that hangs over the entire thing. It still wasn't a book for me, but looking at it through that lens made me feel like its flaws were less egregious. If beautiful, almost poetic prose is something you're drawn to, this will be an amazing read for you. If you like a bit more traditional story structure with strongly drawn won't.

Tell me, blog friends...what's your favorite classical epic? I've got to go with The Odyssey, myself.

One year ago, I was reading: The Blind Assassin

Two years ago, I was reading: The Life of the World to Come

Three years ago, I was reading: Unbelievable

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