Review: In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje; or, Talk to me about beautiful prose

Disliking a book I expected to dislike always produces a strange mix of feelings. On one hand, I like being right. On the other hand, I like liking things. I greatly prefer liking things to disliking them. Given the choice, I would elect to like Michael Ondaatje, but the fact is that I just did not. I don’t like it when people indent dialogue instead of punctuating it normally, for one thing. Just punctuate it normally! Why do you think God invented punctuation in the first place?

(My stance in favor of normal punctuation has been documented in this space before, so I won’t go on. Just know that I prefer normal punctuation in almost every case.)

Here are the reasons I read In the Skin of a Lion, in increasing order of importance:

  1. My friend the Enthusiast wanted to start a book discussion lunch thing with me and an extremely beautiful, intelligent coworker who I haven’t talked to very often. And the Enthusiast said she likes reading books with beautiful prose, and she suggested In the Skin of a Lion so I agreed.
  2. I did not know that it was about aqueducts.

This book is about aqueducts. So now you know. I recognize that I should have found this out before consenting to read it, but I didn’t. It’s about Canadian history, too, which I guess is fine, except that I don’t know anything about Canadian history except how the British threw the Cajuns out of Canada and that is how they came to live in Louisiana instead; but the point is that all these historical tidbits were wasted on me. The millionaire who disappears in the book, Ambrose Small, apparently was a real guy. That seems like it should be an interesting plotline, yet instead it is exceptionally dull.

Another point to consider is that if the point of you as a writer is beautiful prose (which Michael Ondaatje might not claim is the case, but the Enthusiast heavily implied that it was), you had better be Tom Stoppard or Vladimir Nabokov. I mean that the prose had better be so exceptionally dazzling that it’s like reading the book version of Salisbury Cathedral or the Grand Canyon, where it knocks you on your ass and you can’t even think of anything else. I am reading Ada, or Ardor at the moment, and I eventually stopped counting the number of sentences that were making me say, “Whoa. Whoa,” because I worried my Nook couldn’t support that many bookmarks.

Or, well, I guess the problem is that I have no brand loyalty to this brand of prose. I am not especially interested in prose a la Marilynne Robinson and Michael Ondaatje, or even a la Donna Tartt, who has written one of my favorite books of all time. Their prose is fine, sometimes very beautiful, but striking metaphors and melancholy descriptions are not a sufficient condition for engendering enjoyment in me. I like The Secret History because the story is gripping; I have thrice failed to get more than a third of the way into The Little Friend because the story does not engage me.

What makes me appreciate prose qua prose is verbal agility. And humor, especially. Like the author has noticed that the English language is equal parts beautiful and absurd, and they are getting a really enormous kick out of it. Salman Rushdie, Vladimir Nabokov, Tom Stoppard, Barbara Kingsolver inĀ The Poisonwood Bible though not so much elsewhere — these are all writers whose prose is worthwhile on its own. A pure and scintillating pleasure.

Also, and I can’t emphasize this enough, In the Skin of a Lion is about aqueducts. AQUEDUCTS.

It’s about other things too. I know I know. It’s also about identity and other things. But it’s mainly about those things as they relate to aqueducts, and combined with the sort of prose it is, this feature of the book makes it positively unbearable to me. I just cannot abide with these brief staccato sentences about fires in kitchens and bridges falling over and whatnot. Pile on the clauses! Bring the periodic structure! That is the sort of prose that makes my heart sing. I am not a Caesar girl, I am a Cicero girl.

And you? Talk to me about beautiful prose. A talent writers should cultivate, or a distraction from good storytelling? Long gorgeous sentences with alliteration and chiasmus and zeugma and clauses clauses clauses, or is Ernest Hemingway the guy for you? Does poetical prose tend to seem affected to you or does it make your heart soar?