Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

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      By Michael Ondaatje. McClelland & Stewart, 273 pp, $34.99, hardcover

      The woman, sometimes named Anna, comes from Divisadero Street, which she points out means not just "to divide" but "to gaze at from afar" as well. It's no surprise she hails from such an ambiguous address; her past is split and doubled, just like everything else in this remarkable new novel from Michael Ondaatje.

      Anna has come to France to research a writer, Lucien Seguro. On first reading, it is perhaps not clear which parts of Divisadero are her own (she's fleeing a violent past, after all, travelling under an assumed name) and which are the (imagined) facts of Lucien's own life. Ondaatje is brilliant in the lightness of his touch; at no point does he intrude to direct the reader. This is storytelling at its most self-confident, no showboating. The sentences are as bare as can be.

      Anna is sometimes mistaken for her sister, Claire. Lucien is taken for his neighbour Roman. Whole family tragedies are bound up in unwitting moments when one person stands in for another, when histories overlap. The past is never far from these characters; it is embodied in the landscape, in the familiar curve of a cheek, in a haunting scent or a snatch of song.

      Divisadero builds recursive meaning through detail, adds substance through repetition. "The past is always carried into the present by small things," Anna muses. Elsewhere: "It's like a villanelle, this inclination of going back to events in our past, the way the villanelle's form refuses to move forward in linear development, circling instead at those familiar moments of emotion. Only the rereading counts, Nabokov said."

      The more you reread Divisadero, the more you come to understand the sleight of hand that Ondaatje performs here. The sleuthing, for the novel is a detective story of the heart. The craft, for the author blends sex, drugs, and gambling with homesteading, caravans, and war. Every story it tells is really one story; every account of loyalty and betrayal, of people divided, is one account. It is here to remind us that the terrible loneliness we each endure can only be made noble through the telling. The pain can never be diminished.

      Michael Ondaatje appears at Christ Church Cathedral (690 Burrard Street) next Thursday (May 3) at 7:30 p.m.