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Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

One consolation of maturity, we tell ourselves, is perspective. But for the characters of Michael Ondaatje's masterful new novel, Divisadero, that proves to be no comfort at all. As Ondaatje's narrator, Anna, says in the prologue, "The raw truth of an incident never ends."

With swift, sure strokes, Ondaatje paints Anna in girlhood, growing up on her father's Northern California farm, surrounded by the people she most loves—her father, her adopted same-age sister, Claire, and Coop, their father's hired farmhand. But that childhood innocence gives way to a fraught and complicated adolescence.

"There was a border now" between Anna and her almost-twin, and at 16, her little-girl fondness for Coop becomes something else, just as the farm becomes the Eden they are cast out of when just 30 pages into the novel, the incident Anna refers to—a moment of passion, violence, and betrayal—changes everything.

We next see her almost 20 years later, living alone in a remote French village in the farmhouse that once belonged to an obscure poet named Lucien Segura, whose biography she is writing. Perhaps she has come to escape her past. Perhaps something in the poet's writing, "his voice with the wound in it," has called to her.

"I am uncertain, even now, what made me fall upon the life of Lucien Segura and wish to write about him," Anna says. Ondaatje knows, though. The 63-year-old author has sought to connect disparate elements in his writing since his first novel, In the Skin of a Lion (1987).

As he did with his 1992 Booker-winning novel The English Patient, Ondaatje tells this story not chronologically, but impressionistically, flowing both backward and forward in time. These shifts are not always fluid but that, posits the author, is how the past intrudes on the present. Ondaatje is interested not in the accrual of days but the weight of specific moments, the moments that shape us. Even as we go about our daily lives, he writes, we "circle time. A paragraph or an episode from another era will haunt us in the night."

With mesmerizing prose, the author compels us to follow him into Segura's odd and lonely life, leaving behind the volatile triangle of Anna, Claire, and Coop. Like Segura, Ondaatje began as a poet before turning to prose, and his poetic roots are evident here, not just in his dreamlike imagery and elegant language but in the novel's deeply encoded, lush, layered structure.

At first Segura's story threatens to overtake Anna's, but eventually Ondaatje reveals what links the two in a coup to make us both cheer for literature and weep for humanity. Ultimately, Ondaatje implies, there is no division. Time and distance are irrelevant. We are bound to each other by ties we cannot see or even understand. "Divisadero, from the Spanish word for division. . . . Or it might derive from the word divisar, meaning to gaze at something from a distance," says Anna. "I look into the distance for those I have lost, so that I see them everywhere."

Ondaatje, unlike Anna, has an unerring sense of perspective. With Divisadero, he gazes with compassion at his broken characters, taking what at first appears to be fragments of stories, fragments of lives, and fashioning from them a whole, a mirror that shows us ourselves.

Ellen Kanner also contributes to Pages, The Miami Herald, and food magazines, including Bon Appétit and Vegetarian Times. She lives in Miami.

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