Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion
Knopf, 1987

I first read this as a teenager. I’d already been reading a lot of adult literature, even if I was still regularly re-reading childhood favourites like the Anne books and still discovering some classics like K.M. Peyton’s Flambards stories and John Christopher’s Tripod series. (Did you read these too?)

But the bulk of my adult reading was true crime and popular fiction, everything from Danielle Steele to Sidney Sheldon to Stephen King. Also in the mix, however, were novels like Timothy Findley’s The Last of the Crazy People, Margaret Atwood’s Life Before Man, Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business, and Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion.

And how I loved In the Skin of a Lion. I remember browsing the shelves of the university bookstore a few years later and being astonished to find skinny books of poetry by Michael Ondaatje, thrilled to have found “more”.

I gushed and gushed and gushed some more. And I was positively stunned that not everybody loved this book. That some people decidedly did not love the way that this author worked with words, played with words, made words do things that I hadn’t thought they could do. (Maybe this disbelief never completely disappears? When you fall hard for a book, sometimes it seems impossible that other readers might feel differently.)

But I read The English Patient when I was in university. I picked it up and put it down again so many times — around papers and quizzes, exams and labs — that I lost the threads. (Not the way to read this author’s work: I realize that now.)

But I didn’t love it the same way that I had loved In the Skin of a Lion. So as the years past, I started to wonder if maybe my love for In the Skin of a Lion wasn’t  a matter of innocence rather than experience. I started to worry that, if I re-read it, I might not love it.

And yet, when I picked up Amy Lavender Harris’ Imagining Toronto, it seemed that she loved it too. It was just the kind of encouragement I needed. And re-reading it was just the kind of re-reading I wanted. My love for In the Skin of a Lion remains intact.

And, in many ways, this novel is a love story. Love between people and love between people and places. So it seems a fitting choice to share some quotes from this novel on Valentine’s Day.

From Nicholas Temelcoff:
“He is aware of her now, the twin. What holds them together is not the act which saved her life but those moments since. The lost song on the radio. His offhand and relaxed flattery to a nun with regard to her beauty. Then he had leaned his head back, closed his eyes for too long, and slept.”

From Patrick Lewis, about Union Station in Toronto:
“Now, in the city, he was new even to himself, the past locked away. He saw his image in the glass of telephone booths. He ran his hands over the smooth pink marble pillars that reached up into the rotunda. This train station was a palace, its niches and caverns an intimate city.”

And, about a couple in the novel:
“His room when they got there was full of bright daylight and traffic noises came through the open window. they slept almost immediately, holding each other’s hands.”

And another couple:
He has come across a love story. This is only a love story. He does not wish for plot and all its consequences. Let me stay in this field with [her]…

And, yet another couple:
He removes nothing. Only the chemise she withdraws from, as if skin. He carries nothing but the jewellery pinned to his arm, a footstep of blood on his shoulder. The feather of her lip on his mouth.
A last plate tips over to the next shelf. He waits for her eye to open. Here comes the first kiss.

(And, no, there aren’t quite that many characters as the number of quotes from couples up there might lead you to believe, but I don’t want to give anything away. Some of the love-lines overlap  in this novel.)

Have you read this novel? Have you been anxious about re-reading something that turned out to be just as amazing as you’d hoped?