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A Review of Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero

A Review of Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero (Knopf, 2007).

I read this novel on the plane flight back from Southern California. I have been meaning to read all of Ondaatje’s work for some time and remember really enjoying Running in the Family that I read years and years ago for master’s orals. In any case, Divisadero is what I might want to describe as a novel that is both ambitious and thought-provoking but still manages NOT to pull together its disparate threads. The problem I suppose is that there is really no developmental trajectory within the text, because as the title clues us into, there will be an incredible division that makes this work, probably really at least two novels, maybe even three. The emotional core of the novel, in my opinion, remains the opening section where Anna, her “stepsister” Claire, and her “stepbrother” Coop, become enmeshed in veiled romantic triangle, one that takes place in the rustic landscape of California’s gold country. Claire’s mother and Anna’s mother both died while giving birth to them and somehow Anna’s father ends up bringing Claire home from the hospital as part of a new and larger family. Coop is an orphaned boy who survived the murder of his family and was then taken into Anna’s family. Anna and Coop eventually embark on an affair when Anna is just 16 and Coop, just a couple of years older; this relationship is the one that severs the intimate sisterly bond between Anna and Claire. Later, when Anna’s father witnesses Coop and Anna’s lovemaking, Coop is horrifically beaten. Anna attempts to wound her father to stop him from beating on Coop, but she herself is violently resisted by her father, manhandled by him and finally taken away from the homestead and away from Coop. Meanwhile Coop is so badly injured that when he regains consciousness the readers are unsure if he will survive. Claire, having been left home alone after Anna and her father leave Coop behind, finds the injured Coop and enables his escape. From this point forward the family is splintered: Anna runs away from her father; Coop leaves the family homestead for a life of gambling; Claire and her “stepfather” remain tethered to their Northern California regional location, but with little emotional connection to each other. The second part of the book really involves Coop’s descent into gambling and how he coincidentally bumps into Claire. Because Claire and Anna physically resemble one another, there is always the question of identity and mirroring within the novel. This mirroring gets played off of when the story shifts to Anna’s perspective as we discover she is in France, researching the life of a writer named Lucien Segura. Lucien’s own story is one fraught with difficult romance, one that blooms a little bit too late and so we see that Anna’s escape into the lives of others is a way for her to suspend more formal reflections of her own trials and tribulations. As the novel moves on, we find out more and more about Lucien Segura’s life and the various figures that are central to it. One such figure is a young boy named Raphael who will later grow up to be Anna’s lover. Lucien’s story will end up completely overtaking the novel in what is probably the “central” division. All stories are essentially left open-ended.
One of Ondaatje’s many gifts as a writer is his prose styling. There is some ineffable quality there that renders it lyrical and emotionally resonant. I recall one book reviewer saying that even when Ondaatje takes such risks, we know we are in capable hands. Even though I was left bewildered by the conclusion, there was a kind of impact that is hard to quantify. The novel certainly makes me invested in characters who actually seem quite abstracted. While I can’t say for certain what it is about this book that pushes you through, perhaps it is in the disjointed poetics: a terrifying horseback ride during a full eclipse, the haze of man in convalescence, a woman finding renewal researching the lives of others, a novel named after a street in San Francisco, splitting and then splitting again.

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