From the celebrated author of The English Patient and In the Skin of a Lion comes a remarkable new novel of intersecting lives that ranges across continents and time.
In the 1970s in northern California, near Gold Rush country, a father and his teenage daughters, Anna and Claire, work their farm with the help of Coop, an enigmatic young man who makes his home with them. Theirs is a makeshift family, until it is riven by an incident of violence — of both hand and heart — that sets fire to the rest of their lives.
Divisadero takes us from the city of San Francisco to the raucous backrooms of Nevada’s casinos, and eventually to the landscape of south central France. It is here, outside a small rural village, that Anna becomes immersed in the life and the world of a writer from an earlier time — Lucien Segura. His compelling story, which has its beginnings at the turn of the century, circles around “the raw truth” of Anna’s own life, the one she’s left behind but can never truly leave. And as the narrative moves back and forth in time and place, we discover each of the characters managing to find some foothold in a present rough-hewn from the past.
Breathtakingly evoked and with unforgettable characters, Divisadero is a multi-layered novel about passion, loss, and the unshakable past, about the often discordant demands of family, love, and memory. It is Michael Ondaatje’s most intimate and beautiful novel to date.
About the author
Michael Ondaatje (born 12 September 1943) is a Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist and poet of Colombo Chetty and Burgher origin. He is perhaps best known for his Booker Prize-winning novel, The English Patient, which was adapted into an Academy-Award-winning film.
He moved to England in 1954, and in 1962 moved to Canada where he has lived ever since. He was educated at the University of Toronto and Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and began teaching at York University in Toronto in 1971. He published a volume of memoir, entitled Running in the Family, in 1983. His collections of poetry include The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems (1981), which won the Canadian Governor General's Award in 1971; The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems (1989); and Handwriting: Poems (1998). His first novel, Coming Through Slaughter (1976), is a fictional portrait of jazz musician Buddy Bolden. The English Patient (1992), set in Italy at the end of the Second World War, was joint winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction and was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 1996. Anil's Ghost (2000), set in Sri Lanka, tells The Story of a young female anthropologist investigating war crimes for an international human rights group.
Michael Ondaatje lives in Toronto with his wife, Linda Spalding, with whom he edits the literary journal Brick. His new novel is Divisadero (2007).
- Nominated, IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
- Nominated, Scotiabank Giller Prize
Excerpt: Divisadero (by (author) Michael Ondaatje)
By our grandfather’s cabin, on the high ridge, opposite a slope of buckeye trees, Claire sits on her horse, wrapped in a thick blanket. She has camped all night and lit a fire in the hearth of that small structure our ancestor built more than a generation ago, and which he lived in like a hermit or some creature, when he first came to this country. He was a self-sufficient bachelor who eventually owned all the land he looked down onto. He married lackadaisically when he was forty, had one son, and left him this farm along the Petaluma road.
Claire moves slowly on the ridge above the two valleys full of morning mist. The coast is to her left. On her right is the journey to Sacramento and the delta towns such as Rio Vista with its populations left over from the Gold Rush.
She persuades the horse down through the whiteness alongside crowded trees. She has been smelling smoke for the last twenty minutes, and, on the outskirts of Glen Ellen, she sees the town bar on fire–the local arsonist has struck early, when certain it would be empty. She watches from a distance without dismounting. The horse, Territorial, seldom allows a remount; in this he can be fooled only once a day. The two of them, rider and animal, don’t fully trust each other, although the horse is my sister Claire’s closest ally. She will use every trick not in the book to stop his rearing and bucking. She carries plastic bags of water with her and leans forward and smashes them onto his neck so the animal believes it is his own blood and will calm for a minute. When Claire is on a horse she loses her limp and is in charge of the universe, a centaur. Someday she will meet and marry a centaur.
The fire takes an hour to burn down. The Glen Ellen Bar has always been the location of fights, and even now she can see scuffles starting up on the streets, perhaps to honour the landmark. She sidles the animal against the slippery red wood of a madrone bush and eats its berries, then rides down into the town, past the fire. Close by, as she passes, she can hear the last beams collapsing like a roll of thunder, and she steers the horse away from the sound.
On the way home she passes vineyards with their prehistoric-looking heat blowers that keep air moving so the vines don’t freeze. Ten years earlier, in her youth, smudge pots burned all night to keep the air warm.
Most mornings we used to come into the dark kitchen and silently cut thick slices of cheese for ourselves. My father drinks a cup of red wine. Then we walk to the barn. Coop is already there, raking the soiled straw, and soon we are milking the cows, our heads resting against their flanks. A father, his two eleven-year-old daughters, and Coop the hired hand, a few years older than us. No one has talked yet, there’s just been the noise of pails or gates swinging open.
Coop in those days spoke sparingly, in a low-pitched monologue to himself, as if language was uncertain. Essentially he was clarifying what he saw–the light in the barn, where to climb the approaching fence, which chicken to cordon off, capture, and tuck under his arm. Claire and I listened whenever we could. Coop was an open soul in those days. We realized his taciturn manner was not a wish for separateness but a tentativeness about words. He was adept in the physical world where he protected us. But in the world of language he was our student.
At that time, as sisters, we were mostly on our own. Our father had brought us up single-handed and was too busy to be conscious of intricacies. He was satisfied when we worked at our chores and easily belligerent when it became difficult to find us. Since the death of our mother it was Coop who listened to us complain and worry, and he allowed us the stage when he thought we wished for it. Our father gazed right through Coop. He was training him as a farmer and nothing else. What Coop read, however, were books about gold camps and gold mines in the California northeast, about those who had risked everything at a river bend on a left turn and so discovered a fortune. By the second half of the twentieth century he was, of course, a hundred years too late, but he knew there were still outcrops of gold, in rivers, under the bunch grass, or in the pine sierras.
Now and then our father embraced us as any father would. This happened only if you were able to catch him in that no-man’s-land between tiredness and sleep, when he seemed wayward to himself. I joined him on the old covered sofa, and I would lie like a slim dog in his arms, imitating his state of weariness–too much sun perhaps, or too hard a day’s work.
Claire would also be there sometimes, if she did not want to be left out, or if there was a storm. But I simply wished to have my face against his checkered shirt and pretend to be asleep. As if inhaling the flesh of an adult was a sin and also a glory, a right in any case. To do such a thing during daylight would have been unthinkable, he’d have pushed us aside. He was not a modern parent, he had been raised with a few male rules, and he no longer had a wife to qualify or compromise his beliefs. So you had to catch him in that twilight state, when he had ceded control on the tartan sofa, his girls enclosed, one in each of his arms. I would watch the flicker under his eyelid, the tremble within that covering skin that signalled his tiredness, as if he were being tugged in mid-river by a rope to some other place. And then I too would sleep, descending into the layer that was closest to him. A father who allows you that should protect you all of your days, I think.
“Genius (there is no other word for a writer of such grace and depth). Ondaatje’s unique gift is that his stories perform an inexorable seduction, impossible to resist. . . . Divisadero shines with an indisputable and incomparable power. . . . A brilliant sleight of hand.”
— Globe and Mail
“The bewitching, assured Divisadero is the perfect reminder of why Ondaatje deserves to be honoured with his global peers.”
“Gorgeous. . . . It’s Ondaatje’s singular achievement to explore the heavy costs and burdens of colliding human lives with a lightness of touch and clarity of vision that makes for dead-run compelling reading.”
— National Post
“Michael Ondaatje’s prose is breathtaking. . . . Divisadero is his most beautiful [novel]. . . . [A] luminous book by one of our most thoughtful and erudite writers.”
— Charlotte Gray, Ottawa Citizen
“Intricate, lyrical, profoundly moving, this brilliantly imagined mediation on love, loss and memory. . . .”
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“At once powerful and beautiful . . .”
— Booklist (starred review)
“Michael Ondaatje is the Canadian William Faulkner, writing novels that are visually unforgettable, stylistically inimitable, utterly devoted to the rise and fall of the human heart . . . . Compelling and moving. . . .”
— Vancouver Sun
“It has the ensemble qualities of early Robert Altman films and the poetic intensity of Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre. . . . Masterly writing. . . .”
— Montreal Gazette
“The spare erotics and lucid passions of Divisadero engage readers first and last through Ondaatje’s supple and resonant gifts with language, syntax and style, in the service of stories and voices that resonate far beyond the page. . . . The lives and longings of [his characters] quietly but insistently enter your own, as if you’d known them for an era — and as if their stories should mean something to you. And you have, and they do.”
— Winnipeg Free Press
“Emotionally riveting. . . . [Divisadero] delivers his trademark seductive prose, quixotic characters and psychological intricacy.”
— Publishers Weekly
“Ondaatje’s writing is evocative, powerful and deeply intimate. The reader can’t help but care about all of the characters. . . . [who] come to accept the reality of their own lives, and the loss of the ones who meant the most.”
— Calgary Herald