Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

06/10/07, The Times

As if to represent the cloven nature of the lives of Anna, Claire and Coop, the central characters of his new novel, Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje constructs a structure of divisions and breakages, open-ended narrative arcs which sometimes stop abruptly or barely cohere, the links and alliances all tenuous, ghostly, even poetic and metaphorical. The hint in the title is flagged up: ‘Divisadero, from the Spanish word for division, the street that at one time was the dividing line between San Francisco and the fields of the Presidio’.

In the 1970s in Petaluma, Northern California, motherless Anna and Claire are being raised on a farm by their father. The other member of this household is the farmhand, Coop, also an orphan, and only four years older than the girls. The violent act that fractures their lives and sets them spinning into different trajectories is the father’s discovery of Anna and Coop making love: he nearly kills Coop while Anna tries to save her lover by driving a shard of glass into the shoulder of her blindly enraged father. Fast forward nearly two decades. Coop, now a gambler and infinitely subtle cardsharp, fetches up in Tahoe where he is discovered miraculously in a café by Claire, who now works as a lawyer in San Francisco, only to lose him and then find him again. Anna, meanwhile, moves to Dému, in the Gers region of France, and lives in the last house inhabited by the famous and reclusive French poet and novelist, Lucien Segura, who disappeared without trace after the war. There, she takes as her lover the Gypsy Rafael who, as a boy, had travelled with Segura all over the Gers, and tries to reconstruct Segura’s life.

It’s a narrative of loops and switchbacks, of serendipity and coincidences – an Ondaatje trademark, this – orchestrated with absolute mastery and grace. The first section of the book is taken up by the story in California, both past and present, with brief flashes of Anna’s life with Rafael in Dému. The last two sections move to France; the final part of the book, ‘The House at Dému’, Anna’s imaginative narrative (fiction, if you will) of Segura’s life, is a thing of astonishing beauty, achieving a metaphorical and empathetic resonance with Anna’s own life that is at once elusive and devastating.

While the California section of the book fails to convince, especially the whimpery bathos of the act that ruptures the lives of the protagonists, and Claire and Coop never really come to life, it is in France, in the fiction-within-fiction section, that the book catches fire. Ondaatje writes about love as if in a fever, the prose – luminous swathes of poetry for the most part – reaching a delirious beauty that can only be called exalted. Had it not been for the immense, apparently artless control he exercises over every sentence, this prose, forever teetering on the edge of precious but never toppling over, could easily have cloyed. Instead, its emotional impact can stun you into silence.