It’s now eight years since Michael Ondaatje published his last novel, The English Patient, a tour de force of romantic storytelling, which, helped along by the 1996 movie of the same name, has achieved almost Coke-like levels of global penetration. The book is now available in 32 countries and 30 languages, and has elevated its Torontobased author to that select circle of writers who are as famous abroad as at home. But while eight years may pass swiftly in the life of a working novelist, it is a long time for fans to wait for his next book. No wonder Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost is the most anticipated Canadian novel of the year.
The main character in Ondaatje’s fiction is always the setting, and in Anil’s Ghost the 56-year-old author has returned to one of his favourites: his native island of Sri Lanka, which he has evoked in many of his poems and in his spellbinding 1982 memoir, Running in the Family. The story takes place during the civil war and associated rebellions that tore the country apart between the mid-’80s and early-’90s. Into this nightmare of roaming death squads comes a 33-year-old forensic pathologist, Anil Tissera. A native of Sri Lanka, she has spent 15 years away, training and working in Britain and North America. Now she has been sent home by a Geneva-based human rights group seeking to discover who is behind the epidemic of murders and kidnappings.
There’s something a bit thin about this premise—a lone woman sent to poke about in one of the world's worst killing grounds, where the merest rumour can bring on the boys with the Kalashnikovs. The fact that she has
teamed up with a local anthropologist hardly alters the picture. And yet the unlikeliness of the story is scarcely a drawback, for although the novel has its realistic side (for example, Anil’s expertise with the bones of murder victims is depicted with fascinating exactitude), Ondaatje is most at home creating dream landscapes, just as he did in The English Patient. In Anil’s Ghost, the Sri Lanka of teeming urban streets and vast plantations barely appears. Instead, a mysterious atmosphere of solitude and quiet reigns— as if the entire island were engulfed in a kind of Prosperos spell, a cloud of luxurious vegetation and secret pools, where monks and hermits can be glimpsed amid the ruins of ancient shrines.
The novel generates much of its tension from the contrast between the romantic beauty of this setting and the violence—the shootings, tortures and
crucifixions—whose after-effects Ondaatje evokes with such an exquisite sense of the body’s frailty. The book constantly poses the question of how such horror can happen in such idyllic surroundings: beauty, it seems, can save no one. At its heart, the vision of humanity offered in Anil’s Ghost is profoundly pessimistic, although it is tempered by several moving depictions of heroism.
In the novel’s second half, Ondaatje’s more poetic and meditative urges completely overwhelm the initial thrillerlike momentum, as the author moves into lengthy explorations of his characters’ backgrounds. Anil’s Ghost is, in the
end, a scattered novel, perhaps even a novel out of control, and for this reason never achieves the mythic reverberations of The English Patient. But its labyrinths are always a pleasure to follow, and in its finest passages—like the ecstatic conclusion, in which one of the characters, an artisan, paints the eyes on a new statue of the Buddha—the book generates a mixture of wonder and high tension unique in the world of fiction.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.