cover image In Skin of a Lion

In Skin of a Lion

Michael Ondaatje. Alfred A. Knopf, $16.95 (243pp) ISBN 978-0-394-56363-3

A spellbinding writer, Ondaatje exhibits a poet's sensibility and care for the precise, illuminating word. The author of Coming Through Slaughter and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid again paints an impressionistic picture mixing real events and intersected fictional lives. We meet Patrick Lewis in his youth, living in the harsh but beautiful Canadian back country, with his father, a dynamiter of log jams. The action then segues to Toronto in the 1920s, where daredevil bridge builders, immigrants from many countries, are engaged in erecting an enormous span. A scene in which a young nun is swept off the unfinished bridge on a stormy night will make readers gasp; descriptions of the skill and agility of the bridge workers and the laborers who build a tunnel under Lake Ontario, going about their work in the yawning maw of danger, are also graphically stunning. When Patrick comes to Toronto, feeling himself an immigrant from the provinces, his life becomes entwined with those of actresses Clara Dickens and Alice Gull, with whom he experiences love, despair and, eventually, compulsion to commit a violent act. Ondaatje everywhere uses ""a spell of language'' to spin his brilliantly evoked tale. He writes, ``The best art can order the chaotic tumble of events'' and ``the first sentence of every novel should be: `Trust me, this will take time, but there is order here, very faint, very human.' '' Both statements aptly describe this beautiful work. (September 28)