by Michael Ondaatje

Published by Knopf/McClelland & Stewart

320 pages, 2007





Worlds Divided

Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum


At the mere mention of a new novel by Michael Ondaatje, there is what feels like a spontaneous frisson in the literary community. A rolling, whispered excitement about where he will take us, what he will reveal about us.

Both quiet and violent, the first half of Divisadero is the tale of three quasi-siblings in 1960s California. Theirs is a family created by generosity and ripped apart by youthful passion, and it happens at time when America was finally waking up, coming into its own. The novel's second half is the story of a French writer at the end of his life; decades after his death, his books are read by one of the daughters in the first half.

The two stories are woven together in subtle ways, with details in one mirrored by details in the other. Ondaatje isn't the kind of writer who calls attention to these stitches, but they're there. As its title implies, Divisadero is a book of opposites, of divides in faith and emotion and time that are crossed by the very smallest of moments. In profound ways, Divisadero is about broken lives: lives broken by passion and generosity and happenstance. Reading, you ache for these people to repair their lives, to glue the pieces back together -- but they seem content with things as they are, unsure how to repair them, or unwilling.

Ondaatje's language is spare, each sentence a finely whittled stick. The characters seem almost impossibly separated from their own lives. They seem to wander through them, not without mission, but without the passion that lit their childhoods. They seem resigned to lives they can only pretend to understand, swayed by invisible tides. Their lines of dialogue are spare, as well, stripped of all superfluous words and phrases. We hear them say very little, only what is absolutely necessary to convey a seed of emotion, a tiny flowering of thought.

With so much stripped away, Divisadero reads quickly. At times I felt like a bird soaring at thousands of feet, barely able to see more than ant-size figures below. Other times, I felt like I was walking beside the characters, watching them, hearing them, longing to shake them until they remembered the vitality and the choices they left behind; it's as if they all faced forks in the road, and instead of choosing one, just left the road altogether.

The effect is signature Ondaatje. The work is written like a well-prepared meal, with the perfect amounts of appetizer and main course and dessert; just enough and not too much.

Divisadero is like the stories of an old man whose voice has almost vanished. His whispering compels you to lean closer, to quiet yourself and your mind and to listen to the words, sense their power, and walk away seeing everything again for the first time. | May 2007


Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse and a contributing editor to January Magazine and Blue Coupe. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, New Jersey where he is hard at work on an exciting new chapter in his life.