I had listed this book as one of my three worst books I read in
2016, but that doesn't mean everyone will feel the same. I picked it up because The English Patient (1992) is my favourite fiction novel (which explains my weird crush on Ralph Fiennes) and I was hoping to love it, but was disappointed. The writing is still Ondaatje-good but the story was confusing and I almost even felt like it was a waste of my time. Reading about why I don't like it may be a waste of your time too so I apologize in advance...
Ondaatje is a very cool, Sri-Lankan born, Canadian author. I got into him in a Canadian Lit class I took in university and absolutely loved In the Skin of a Lion (1987), which tells the stories of numerous immigrants as they help industrialize Toronto. It is awesome... but that's not the book this post is about. I knew Ondaatje's writing was fairly hit and miss because, as I mentioned, I love The English Patient SO MUCH (if you can't be bothered to read it watch the movie, it's amazing, I sob like a baby every time) but I hated reading The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970). I thought maybe I was safe with his fiction, I was wrong.
The book is broken into two sections, one where a father raises twin daughters Anna and Claire on a farm along with a son he adopts while the girls are young named Coop. The second section follows the daughters and Coop when they are adults as they navigate their relationships.
I really liked the character relationships in the first section. I think familial relationships are one of the coolest subjects to read about, and the relationship Anna and Claire have with Coop as they grow up is so interesting to me. However, there is an incident in the first section that is meant to set the pace for the second section which, in my opinion, fails. The second section seems completely out of place to me. I didn't understand the new characters and any ties to the first section were over my head. Maybe someone deeper or smarter could understand, leave a comment if you're that person.
If you want to give this a chance and read it, maybe stop reading this post now because I'm going to give the incident away as I can't possibly keep talking around it...
The main incident in the book involves Coop and Anna eventually engaging in a sexual relationship which tears the family apart once the father finds them. Things I think about in a situation like this:
- Can adopted siblings really grow to view each other sexually... is it nature or nurture that we aren't attracted to our siblings?
- The father throws Coop out of the house he's lived in his whole life without even batting an eye... is this because he's adopted? Is there ever a point with adopted children where they're less 'dispensable' in crisis than your biological children?
- Or could the father have just been more angry at Coop not because he was adopted but because he was the man in the situation?
I also wish that Ondaatje had talked a little bit more about Claire's feelings regarding Anna and Coop. The book suggests she knew about the relationship and didn't want to acknowledge it but I want to know if she felt jealous? Or maybe she was mad at her sister because now her brother has been banished? Or does she grieve with her sister for the loss of Coop in a romantic sense? This was the part I found interesting and sadly, there wasn't enough of it. Had the first section of the book continued on I honestly feel like I would have really liked it.
Even though I didn't like the second section, there are some great quotes as the sisters reflect back on how their family was torn apart by the incident:
"We think, in our youth, we are the centre of the universe, but we simply respond, go this way or that by accident, survive or improve by the luck of the draw, with little choice or determination on our part."
"We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell."
I don't recommend this book, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't read it. Perhaps you'll pick out details or connections I missed because I was bored through the second section. I want to note that not liking this book hasn't turned me off Ondaatje altogether. I still bought a few more of his books at a used bookstore in Florida and am excited to see how I feel about those... still looking for something that comes close to The English Patient.