This novel’s a beauty, a 270-page meander by a man with an outrageous lyrical gift. If you’ve read The English Patient, here is a spine-tingly reminder of what this guy can do: “I carried Katherine Clifton into the desert, where there is the communal book of moonlight. We were among the rumour of wells. In the palace of winds.” The rumour of wells! Who can resist that?
You can’t resist that. Not if you want to read Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero, anyway – which you definitely do – because it’s wonderfully careful and subtle and open-ended. This novel skims from moment to moment like a pebble across a river.
You can’t take these characters under your wing (if readers have wings). And the story of Divisadero, naturally, is never told as though it were the only one. Listen to this: “‘We have art,’ Nietzsche says, ‘so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth.’ For the raw truth of an episode never ends, just as the terrain of my sister’s life and the story of my life with Coop are endless to me.”
I’m avoiding plot summary. Insincere apologies to the cliché-keen but, I gotta say, to summarise a Dan Brown book in 100 words is editing. To shorten an Ondaatje novel, on the other hand, seems an absurd limitation, an inevitably pointless violence. But, on the third hand, as you understandably ask, your voice lifting and dipping like a sine graph: “Matt, you’re so pretentious. Just tell us, man, what’s it about?” Well, okay, fine, have it your way, you got it: Divisadero is about family, memory, poker, writing, thieving, France, Las Vegas, California, separation, violence, sex, cubism, death, loneliness, love. The sex and the violence – and the sexual violence, & the violent sex – are pretty typical & will, as always, stall the speed-readers.
The front cover photo is a modern black-and-white, a model with her arms as pillows, looking along her body to an absent point. Swimming in her memories.
A nicely still, suggestive image for Ondaatje. He’s best with sobs at kitchen tables, naps post-coitus, shy conversations. We are encouraged to read as I imagine he must write: looking up from the page, out the window, at birds fighting in the branches.
Don’t expect the hack writer’s cheap tactics; don’t try and read it all at once. Appreciate particularly the purple passages.