By Michael Ondaatje
Knopf. 273 pp. $25
What an unusual, and unusually rich, experience it is to read Divisadero, the new novel by Michael Ondaatje -- like going for a walk in a familiar neck of the woods, getting lost and then discovering an entirely new neck of woods filled with unknown wonders. The title provides only the subtlest of clues: It's the name of the San Francisco street on which one character, Anna, lives. Within the story, it's mere trivia; none of the novel's action takes place there, and Anna herself only mentions her street in passing. But Ondaatje apparently loves what that word connotes -- a line between two realms, separating them but also hinging them. And how appropriate, for Divisadero is ultimately a story about two worlds divided by decades and oceans, but connected by clarion, undiminishable echoes.
Though Ondaatje is best known as the author of 1992's The English Patient, which went from being a well-regarded literary novel to a worldwide multimedia phenomenon, it's worth noting that he began his career as a poet. Surely the poet in him also appreciates all the anagrams (or near-anagrams) tucked into his new book's title: not just "divide," but also "desire," "eros" and "savior" -- words with particular resonance in the lives of Anna, Claire and Coop, the trio of quasi-siblings who grow up together in California before going their separate ways. Years after the three are forced to say an abrupt and violent goodbye, Anna's studies take her to an abandoned French farmhouse, the onetime home of a World War I-era writer whose work has become a focus of her scholarship. As she reconstructs the writer's life (with help from a lover who once knew him), Anna can't help but be struck by the remarkable similarities between his world and her own.
As the story begins, Anna is living on a Petaluma farm with her widowed father; with Coop, an older orphan boy taken in by her parents when her mother was still alive; and with Claire, another orphan who is born at the same time as Anna and who is raised, more or less, as Anna's sister. Without the bond of blood to enforce the incest taboo, it's pretty clear where we're headed, especially given Coop's penchant for rugged, shirtless, outdoor work and the teenage girls' penchant for watching him as he swings a hammer or dives into a water tank to patch a leak. The question isn't if something will happen but rather when Coop will take "one step beyond the intimacy that was handed to him," and with which of his almost-sisters.
The inevitable occurs, and when the father learns of it, this improvised family is broken apart. Coop, who is lucky to escape with his life, becomes a professional gambler, a career choice well-suited to his solitary ways and taciturn personality. Claire goes to work as an investigator for a public defender's office, where she specializes in discovering the presence of mitigating circumstances -- another perfect fit for a woman still trying to understand the act of violence that truncated her childhood. Which leaves Anna, who never looked back after running away from home at 16, but who now finds herself encountering, in the life of her biographical subject, the same themes and events that have shaped her own.
Ondaatje spends more than half of this novel following these three, interlacing their stories, expertly shifting into different voices and tenses, disrupting the conventional chronology with the easy grace that has become his hallmark. And then he does something very unconventional indeed. Two-thirds of the way through Divisadero, he abandons his characters. Or at least he seems to, as he picks up the trail of Lucien Segura, the French writer whose life and work have so intrigued Anna. And just like that, we cross the dividing line from one world into the next, with little understanding -- at first -- as to how Segura's tale could possibly mesh with all that has come before it.
The two stories do mesh, of course, but without the aid of any awkward contrivances or outlandish coincidences. There are no a-ha! moments, no disclosures of concealed ancestry or secret connective history. Instead, Ondaatje is coaxing us to acknowledge the universality of those themes hiding there inside his title -- desire, the ways we save one another and the debts we owe to those who save us -- and to see how they link all of us, irrespective of our backgrounds or circumstances or eras. Anna, who grew up with a brother who wasn't exactly her brother and a sister who wasn't exactly her sister, now discovers that she has a twin in the long-dead Segura, whose secrets and passions uncannily mirror her own. By the end of this hauntingly beautiful story, the reader will feel just as closely connected to the both of them.
And along the way, what wonderfully precise language we're treated to. A boy observing the night sky with his mother, drunk on starlight: "It was when he felt most clearly that there was no distinction between himself and what was beyond him -- a tree's sigh or his mother's song, could, it seemed, have been generated by his body. Just as whatever gesture he made was an act performed by the world around him." A married man who can't stop thinking about another woman, also married, who lives in the next farmhouse over: "He noticed the square of a lit window on the slope of the hill. There was a tightrope between the two farms, and below it an abyss."
There are countless more examples of perfect phrasing in Divisadero, and those who spend time within its pages will discover even more proof -- not that they needed it -- of Michael Ondaatje's peerlessness as a storyteller and poet. ·
Jeff Turrentine reviews fiction for The Washington Post and the New York Times.