Regardless of what is actually happening on the page (even brutality, sometimes tragedy), Michael Ondaatje’s writing is something akin to a velvety, soothing dream. In a perfect world, reading (or better yet, listening to … in this case, to the lulling voice of actor Hope Davis) the Sri Lankan-born, Canadian-domiciled Ondaatje would be done in an uninterrupted flow …
Anna, Claire, and Cooper are three siblings unrelated by blood. Their widowed farmer father creates his family, taking in young Cooper at age 4 after his parents are murdered then bringing newly orphaned Claire home from the hospital with his birthdaughter Anna when he loses Anna’s mother in childbirth. Sixteen years later, the father will shatter that same family.
Almost two decades since the fateful storm that tore her family apart, Anna reappears in a remote French village, researching the life and work of late-19th century French poet and novelist Lucien Segura. Anna is living a “quiet and anonymous time” in Segura’s home, content to spend most of her waking hours at Segura’s own kitchen table … until she goes out one day to explore her surroundings and brings home a lover who has an intimate connection to Segura and this manoir home.
Back across the Pond and across the continent, Claire is working in San Francisco for a lawyer, her job having to do with a different kind of research. Most weekends, she travels back to the family farm to see their father in Petaluma; she is the only child who returns home. By chance, out on assignment, Claire meets Cooper who in his adulthood has become a professional gambler; she will once again need to save him.
Time, narrative, histories are all seemingly borderless in Ondaatje’s novel. From the 1970s to 1990s to the decades leading up to World War I, Ondaatje intricately weaves together fragments from two families – separated at the very least by thousands of miles and almost a century, and yet overlapping in so many intimate details of their very existence.
For readers to know so much more than the characters is almost aching knowledge … and still we can never know enough. With prose so beckoning, so addictive, finishing an Ondaatje novel always comes with both satisfaction and want.