Dispersed Geographies

Reviewed by Gillian Roberts

Seven years after the publication of Anil’s Ghost, Ondaatje’s new novel arrives accompanied by a weight of expectation. Like The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost, Divisadero offers a narrative wide-ranging in its geography. We begin with the story of two Californian sisters, Anna and Claire, their father, and his hired hand, Coop. The father’s discovery of Anna and Coop’s sexual relationship destroys the family, and we follow the separate stories of Anna, Coop, and Claire in the wake of the father’s violent retribution. While Coop’s story is one of card games in the desert, Anna, who intermittently narrates, surfaces in France, where she researches the writer Lucien Segura, whose own, early twentieth-century narrative focuses on his befriending Marie-Neige, a young, poor, and illiterate woman who rents a nearby farmhouse with her husband. Though Anna teaches French at a San Francisco university, she remains lost to her sister, who works for a defence lawyer in the city. Many of Divisadero’s characters resemble those from earlier works in Ondaatje’s corpus. Coop is a kind of cousin to In the Skin of a Lion’s Patrick Lewis, quiet, almost passive, exuding innocence of a sort, his character expressed through physicality: “Coop, who with his confidence would sweep a hay bale over his shoulder and walk to the barn lighting a cigarette with his free hand.” Anna, like Anil, ambivalent about her own history, tries to lose herself in her research. The setting and atmosphere of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid also resonate through Coop’s narrative in the American desert as Ondaatje revisits a kind of Wild West lawlessness. However, Divisadero also departs from earlier Ondaatje works. In the Skin of a Lion, The English Patient, and Anil’s Ghost each work to build small groups of affiliation only to shatter them in various ways in the culmination of their narratives. In contrast, Divisadero destroys its affiliative group early on, its narrative functioning more centrifugally rather than centripetally. Further, Anna’s role as narrator, inconsistent throughout the book, presents a major structural and stylistic difference from Divisadero’s precursors. Ondaatje leaves open the possibility that Anna not only narrates her own story but constructs the others’ stories as well—“I find the lives of Coop and my sister and my father everywhere (I draw portraits of them everywhere)”—just as she is writing a book about Segura and, potentially, his personal narrative. Like the earlier novels, Divisadero pits individuals’ histories against accepted History, the forgotten and neglected against the machinations of the powerful. One of Ondaatje’s most significant strengths has been his ability to illustrate the unavoidable impact of Historical events on “unhistorical” lives. In Divisadero, however, the violence of history threatens to become a back. The novel makes reference to wars throughout the twentieth century—Segura’s narrative of World War I; Claire’s employer’s post-Vietnam trauma; news coverage of both the Gulf and Iraq Wars—but it is difficult to ascertain how this history of war functions in the text. Are we to understand that such exertions of violence and power occur in unavoidable cycles, or rather that, particularly in the case of the wars in the Gulf, we have failed to acknowledge them properly by allowing the details of daily life to dominate our concerns? Nonetheless, Divisadero is unwavering about power, where it lies, and how representation and aesthetics usually treat the “unhistorical,” as Marie-Neige knows only too well: “She saw her life then for what it was. There would always be this pointless and impotent dreaming on farms, and there would always be a rich man on horseback who galloped across the world, riding into a forest just to inhale its wet birch leaves after a storm.”

Madeleine Thien’s debut novel, Certainty, spans an even larger geographical range, encompassing Sandakan in British North Borneo, Jakarta, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Vancouver, and Amsterdam. Certainty unfolds in the aftermath of the death of Gail Lim, a Vancouver radio journalist, mourned by her partner Ansel and her parents. Concerned with the workings of time and memory, the novel slips into and out of the past, at times in a single paragraph. Past events consist largely of the memories of Gail’s father, Matthew, in Sandakan at the close of World War II onward, and his relationship with his childhood friend Ani who later, initially unbeknownst to him, gives birth to their son. At the time of her death, Gail is working on a documentary about a Canadian prisoner of war who kept an encrypted diary and later forgot his own code. Matthew’s history, his secret child, and the mystery of his depression during Gail’s upbringing run parallel to the decryption narrative. In this way, Certainty traces various kinds of fallout—political, personal, and traumatic—beginning with World War II and Matthew’s father’s collaboration with Japanese officers but also including the personal betrayal of Ansel’s affair. Sophisticated in its structure and well written, Certainty does not quite match the poetic precision and affective power of Ondaatje’s language; however, it demonstrates an understated, nuanced, and politicized logic to its geography that Divisadero falls short of attaining. Without explicitly saying so, Certainty tracks its global narrative through histories of colonization that bridge such locations as Vancouver and Amsterdam, tracing roots and routes via stories underpinned by British and Dutch power overseas. Thien thereby develops her concern with migration and displacement, first articulated in her short story collection, Simple Recipes. Certainty crosses borders of both time and space, bringing its dispersed narratives to an intersection in Gail, its dead protagonist. Certainty focuses on how people seek out order and meaning, introducing a variety of scientific, philosophical, and ethical discussions facilitated by Gail’s investigative work and the intellectual company she keeps: how do birds fly in formation? What causes the optical illusion of the changing size of the moon? What is the responsibility of war photography? Unafraid to entertain such questions, Certainty is an intelligent novel, a novel about intelligence as well as its limits when life intervenes.

This review “Dispersed Geographies” originally appeared in Predators and Gardens. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 197 (Summer 2008): 172-173.

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