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Book Review - Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

Division Street

Divisadero
by
Michael Ondaatje

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

Review by W. R. Greer


If you didn't know that Michael Ondaatje was a poet as well as a novelist, you'd definitely know that after reading his novel, Divisadero. This is a beautiful book, full of delightful, poetic prose that lets its images and characters move as if lilting through your mind. His settings, from rural California to the casinos in Nevada to the south of France, are not described in a detailed list of what might be found there, but instead each detail is added, almost surreptitiously, to draw the reader further into the story, expanding on the image already present in the mind's eye. The prose almost seems to breathe, its life slowly pulsating to a rhythm so that the reader isn't even aware that they're matching its tempo.

Yet, you may ask, what about the story?

Yes, there is a story, or more correctly, several stories, and their relation to each other isn't obvious at first. Divisadero begins with an unorthodox family. Anna is a 16-year old girl who lives with her father on a farm in northern California. Anna has a sister of sorts. Anna's mother died in childbirth with her, as did Claire's mother during the same week. Anna's father brought them both home from the hospital, raising the girls as sisters. Their family was joined by Coop, an orphan whose family had been murdered. Coop was a few years older than the girls and lived on the farm with them. Being teenage girls living in close quarters with Coop, a quiet, hard working, and self-reliant young man, they were fascinated by him. When Anna became his lover, it was destined to end tragically, casting violent strains on all their relationships—parental, sibling, and lovers.

The family split asunder and they went separate ways. Coop, always tempted by the potential treasure growing up in California's gold rush country, is drawn in by the casinos of Nevada. He falls in with a group of gamblers who teach him the skills necessary to succeed at poker. It provides Coop with a temptation for a big score that he cannot resist, with reverberations that will come to haunt him further. Claire, who managed to save Coop on that tragic night when his affair with Anna ended part of all of their lives, stumbles across Coop in Lake Tahoe. She works as a researcher for a lawyer working for the Public Defender's office. She spends her time trying to find those obscure details that might save her boss' clients, if not trying to save her boss from himself. When she encounters Coop, she must save him again.

Anna, who has an apartment on Divisadero Street in San Francisco, has exiled herself to France. She's immersed herself in the life of French writer Lucien Segura, even living in the house which had been his final residence. It's more of an attempt to hide herself from the world, secluding herself in a place where nobody knows her. She takes a lover, a Roma man named Rafael whose family, when he was a child, knew Lucien Segura.

Halfway through Divisadero, the story lines about Anna, Claire, and Coop stop, and Anna tells Lucien Segura's story, which contains many parallels to her life. This sudden switch is jarring, and the reader is left wondering when Michael Ondaatje is going to get back to the story of the three pseudo-siblings, and he never does. Fortunately, Lucien Segura's story is perhaps the most moving and captivating of the novel.

It does beg the question, "What's the point? Why this division right in the middle of the novel?" Even as I was enjoying Lucien's story, I was bothered by the confusion of plot. By the time I was done, though, somehow it all made sense. As it turns out, the whole novel is about the forces that draw people together—family, love, desire—and the forces that drive them apart. This division, both figuratively and literally, runs through all the characters lives. None of the relationships in Divisadero are typical, but its characters instead are attracted often to the fruit of the opposite sex that should be denied to them. Anna falls for Coop, Coop lusts after a woman who is already having an affair with another man, Anna's affair with Rafael, Rafael's father's love for a Roma woman, and Lucien's attraction to another man's wife. Acting on these urges, these primal human desires, creates the tension, that when released, reverberates through their lives. Yet it is these desires, these attractions and loves as well as the losses and tragedies, that provide the threads that make up the fabrics of their lives. These are the strands, for better and worse, that never cease to run through their hearts and their heads. These are the defining, and dividing, moments of their lives.

These threads that move in and out of his characters' lives merge effortlessly with the threads of poetic prose that move throughout Divisadero. There is music in the words in this novel. When Anna first meets Rafael, he is playing his guitar in a field:

This was a field, he told her sometime later, that he had sat in as a boy, playing alongside his mother's singing. He would look not at the strings but at his mother's face in order to catch her rapid swerves of melody; there would be no clue about her voice's darting, except in her eyes—this starling, that wood thrush—and still he would be beside her, picking up notes as if counting kilometre stones as she flew down a road. As a boy, he had always felt that his musical lessons were a net for holding everything around him—the insects in the field, the weather shifting in the trees—so that he could give it as a collected gift, like a hand cupped with cold water held up to a friend.
This is Michael Ondaatje's gift to the rest of us, his net for holding everything dear to us, even if it eventually leads to heartache and the divisions in our lives. There is nothing predictable in Divisadero and each thread leads to another story that mirrors each other, turning back on itself, so that even its divisions are blurred. This is the poetry of this novel, and the poetry of our lives, that has been expertly captured here.

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