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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Michael Ondaatje

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To purchase Divisadero

Title: Divisadero
Author: Michael Ondaatje
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007
Length: 273 pages
Availability: Divisadero - US
Divisadero - UK
Divisadero - Canada
Divisadero - France
Divisadero - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : both commanding and adrift

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 12/6/2007 Yvonne Zipp
The Economist . 14/6/2007 .
Entertainment Weekly B- 25/5/2007 Jennifer Reese
Financial Times . 15/9/2007 Ángel Gurría-Quintana
The Guardian . 1/9/2007 Alan Warner
The Independent . 14/9/2007 Clive Sinclair
Independent on Sunday . 14/10/2007 Olivia Cole
Le Monde . 7/9/2007 Christine Jordis
NZZ . 6/9/2007 Thomas David
New Statesman . 4/10/2007 Jasmine Gartner
The NY Rev. of Books . 28/6/2007 Pico Iyer
The NY Sun . 23/5/2007 Benjamin Lytal
The NY Times . 11/6/2007 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 17/6/2007 Erica Wagner
The New Yorker . 4/6/2007 Louis Menand
The Observer . 16/9/2007 Stephen Smith
San Francisco Chronicle B+ 3/6/2007 Marcela Valdes
The Spectator . 22/9/2007 .
Sunday Times . 23/9/2007 Peter Parker
The Telegraph F 27/9/2007 Harry Mount
Time . 15/8/2007 Aravind Adiga
The Times A- 22/9/2007 Neel Mukherjee
TLS . 14/9/2007 Stephen Henighan
USA Today A 30/5/2007 Don Oldenburg
The Washington Post A 3/6/2007 Jeff Turrentine
Die Welt . 26/8/2007 Wieland Freund

  Review Consensus:

  Generally more favourable than not, if often also a bit mystified and frustrated

  From the Reviews:
  • "The effect of reading it is like watching a chef on a cooking show who prepares ingredients for a chilled golden beet soup with cucumbers -- and then reaches into the oven, and pulls out a cassoulet. It looks delicious, but you have no idea where it came from. (…) Devotees of Ondaatje's work who just want to read sentences constructed by the Booker Prize winner, rest assured: There are many, and they are lovely. (…) Ultimately, Divisadero seems more concerned with echoes and evocations than telling a good story. Fair enough. But it ultimately lacks the wrenching power of Anil's Ghost, in which real emotion ran like a current alongside the artistic endeavor." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Few novelists are able to pull off such changes without short-changing either one scene or the other, but Mr Ondaatje succeeds, seemingly without effort. That is in part because the scenery he explores most patiently is within rather than without. Readers who long for an interior world coloured only with words are in for a treat." - The Economist

  • "The juxtaposition probably means something, but it's hard to motivate yourself to figure out what." - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Divisadero, his new novel, reflects many of the topics that nestle in Ondaatje’s work: desolate lives, new beginnings, the possibility of tenderness in a time of war. It also represents the purest expression yet of his signature style. The taut prose verges on the poetic -- indeed, Ondaatje was a poet before he was a novelist." - Ángel Gurría-Quintana, Financial Times

  • "Divisadero, in its melancholy and its joys, probes our insubstantiality, the fragility of our self-constructed identity. Repeatedly, characters mistake one for another. (…) This novel bravely jostles the uncomfortable edges of literary storytelling; it collapses time and conventional narrative to demand of us as readers or as creators, "What is it we are doing here ?"" - Alan Warner, The Guardian

  • "For all its highfalutin quotation, the book's DNA seems to be movie-based. Its plot developments (ice storm, card-table showdown, nocturnal couplings) feel as if hatched in a darkened movie theatre, rather than a fevered imagination. (…) At any rate, I spy the auteur glued to a movie camera, his cycloptic eye missing no detail as his characters run endlessly around the spiral tower at Barran. Divisadero may be a work of great ingenuity and beauty, but it is also a transparent thing, through which the light shines, but casts no shadows." - Clive Sinclair, The Independent

  • "The sensual and meditative are resonantly tangled up, as so often in Ondaatje's work, taking on a particular force in a novel that argues so passionately for fiction as a means of survival." - Olivia Cole, Independent on Sunday

  • "(E)in sonderbares, ein eigenartiges Buch: geheimnisvoll und einzigartig, faszinierend wie der Blick von einer Anhöhe über eine ferne, von Dunst und Nebel durchzogene Landschaft, in der Schemen zu erkennen sind, konturlos ineinanderfliessende Schatten, einzelne Figuren, die sich für Augenblicke in ihrer ganzen Gestalt zeigen, um dann wieder in den Nebel zurückzutreten." - Thomas David, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Divisadero is disappointing and frustrating to read, because Ondaatje is clearly capable of writing compelling fiction, yet chooses to abandon it midway through. And so, in a way, he abandons his readers as well." - Jasmine Gartner, New Statesman

  • " (H)is new novel, the strikingly odd Divisadero, puts him on weak footing. With an inventive structure that ought to set him apart, he sets himself adrift, trailing a flotsam of romantic scenarios. (...) Showmanship crams this book with romantic, masculine adventure(...) Mr. Ondaatje's imagination is palpably great, and Divisadero, with its impossible orphaned women and its heterogeneous locales, would make any narrative puzzle meaningful. But Mr. Ondaatje has not created a puzzle. He has created a pattern. It invites noticing but produces no rewarding surprise or conclusion. Instead, we are left to trace authorial intention, everywhere." - Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun

  • "It is a book that improves on second reading because it is so willfully elliptical at first. Among the essential things the reader cannot know, for instance, is what bearing the first half of the book has on the second, since they seem to be almost totally unrelated. Yet it turns out that there are many parallels, echoes, resonances, impulses, chirps (the book is ever-attentive to symbolic import of bird life) and creative curlicues that will present themselves to the patient admirer of Mr. Ondaatje’s work. (…) This book is initially difficult, but the more you give Divisadero, the more it gives in return." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "Divisadero is a series of narratives that calls itself, perhaps for convenience' sake, a novel. I’m not sure that it is, in fact, a novel; but then I wouldn’t be happy calling it a book of linked stories, either. (…) Give in to Ondaatje and his language will seduce you. Sometimes his particularity can be overbearing (…..) It’s no good wishing a novel were different than it is; but the brokenness of Ondaatje’s tale can be frustrating. Still: Divisadero. What did we expect ?" - Erica Wagner, The New York Times Book Review

  • "He is not telling stories; he is using the elements of storytelling to gesture in the direction of a constellation of moods, themes, and images. He is creating the literary equivalent of a Cornell box or a rock garden or a floral arrangement. Ondaatje is an enemy of the linear. (…) Many readers respond to Ondaatje’s anti-novelistic aesthetic. But it is frustrating to read continually against the grain of expectations, and it is even a little annoying to be expected to pick out the patterns in the metaphors, to be obliged to trust that there are patterns, while the author looks on silently." - Louis Menand, The New Yorker

  • "This constant shift in view leaves a sense of knowing and not knowing, which is the atmosphere of all Ondaatje's writing and a crucial effect of this novel. For all the keen exactitude of his observation, he leaves much or most unspoken. The space between events and images, the dislocations of time and space out of which he constructs his stories, are as always as important to him as the events and images themselves." - Stephen Smith, The Observer

  • "Misty abstraction is always the danger of lyrical imagination, the tendency to see characters as romantic archetypes -- the lonely girl, the angry father, the poor brown boy -- rather than as precise, rough-edged people. Ondaatje's success as a novelist is due, in large part, to his consistent ability to avoid that pitfall. In Divisadero, he briefly stumbles in. Then he finds his feet again." - Marcela Valdes, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "This voyeuristic distance from his creations underlies the weaknesses of Divisadero. There are elements of high hokum in the plot-fragments; and characterisation is almost non-existent. (...) Divisadero, from its achingly pretentious title to the last narcissistically self-reflexive image (‘some birds in the almost-dark are flying as close to their reflections as possible’) left me cold." - The Spectator

  • "Ondaatje is at his considerable best when writing about the natural world and rural life. (...) Too often, however, Ondaatje plays the literary conjuror, so beguiling his readers with his prose that they fail to notice that he occasionally produces airy nothingness. (...) We are carried along enjoyably on the lulling rhythms of Ondaatje’s writing, but at the end of this journey we look back across a beautifully shimmering landscape that now seems curiously insubstantial." - Peter Parker, Sunday Times

  • "For his latest novel, Ondaatje has dispensed not only with plot, but also with character, sadness, laughs, writing style -- the whole shooting match. It all leads to not very much, and it's all entirely without tension or plan. Throughout, Ondaatje uses the dangerous swimming-pool technique. That is, he scatters about lots of similes and aperçus which seem momentarily deep, only to turn out to be painfully shallow -- like those pools that people dive into at the wrong end only to become paraplegics." - Harry Mount, The Telegraph

  • "Ondaatje has a gift for capturing music and landscape in words, and there are gorgeous descriptions of strumming guitars, running horses and swooping hawks. But the second part of the book is a letdown; the descriptions in France are often too contrived, too literary. We want less about Segura's art, more about Coop and his crooked card games. And then there's the question of whether the book coheres.(…) But for once, the hawk master has failed at his game: for all the delight of the slips and falls, it doesn't all add up to one story." - Aravind Adiga, Time

  • "Ondaatje writes about love as if in a fever, the prose reaching a delirious beauty. Had it not been for the apparently artless control over every sentence, this prose, forever teetering on the edge of precious, could easily have cloyed. Instead, its emotional impact can stun you into silence." - Neel Mukherjee, The Times

  • "The result is a novel which titillates the reader with the promise of coherence which it is structurally incapable of delivering." - Stephen Henighan, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Ondaatje pulls off the plotlines masterfully. He connects the diverging tales through the story of expatriate Anna and her enigmatic Gypsy lover, Rafael. Changing the narrative rhythm between the two plotlines, he introduces more memorable characters, more scenes of majestic texture and captivating imagery, and more visceral violence. Often he revisits his themes: love and loss, separation and memory. Be warned: The divided structure is likely to divide readers." - Don Oldenburg, USA Today

  • "What an unusual, and unusually rich, experience it is to read Divisadero, the new novel by Michael Ondaatje -- like going for a walk in a familiar neck of the woods, getting lost and then discovering an entirely new neck of woods filled with unknown wonders. (…) The two stories do mesh, of course, but without the aid of any awkward contrivances or outlandish coincidences. There are no a-ha! moments, no disclosures of concealed ancestry or secret connective history. Instead, Ondaatje is coaxing us to acknowledge the universality of those themes hiding there inside his title -- desire, the ways we save one another and the debts we owe to those who save us -- and to see how they link all of us, irrespective of our backgrounds or circumstances or eras. (…) And along the way, what wonderfully precise language we're treated to." - Jeff Turrentine, The Washington Post

  • "Ondaatje hat viel riskiert in Divisadero." - Wieland Freund, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ondaatje easily pulls the reader in with his stories. With seemingly little effort he spins a captivating isolated little world at the beginning of Divisadero around a widower and his two girls, Claire and Anna -- one his natural daughter, the other adopted when her mother also died during childbirth at the same time -- along with Coop, a boy a few years older who the man had taken in when the child was four, after his family was killed by a hired hand .
       The girls are like twins, only eventually becoming "distinctly Anna and distinctly Claire" (while also always retaining a certain blur to their identities), while the two men in the household are more distant islands, living largely in their own, separate and unfathomable worlds. Eventually, Anna and Coop become lovers, and when the father discovers them it wrenches the family apart, each going very different ways. There is some overlap of fates later, but the stories diverge.
       Coop becomes a cardsharp, Anna winds up in France, "to research the life and work of Lucien Segura", a forgotten French writer, and Claire works for a lawyer in the Public Defender's Office in San Francisco, seeing her father on weekends, when she takes her horse and rides into the wilderness -- "She risked everything out there". Ondaatje teases out these stories, describing Coop's education, or jumping ahead a decade or two before recounting how a character arrived there. The pieces are often completely enthralling; some also fit more obviously together, as when Coop and Claire are thrown together again.
       But Ondaatje is playing with many threads in the novel. Anna's French stay includes an affair with a local, and this too will be woven in, with another strand. And here is where Ondaatje makes the biggest leap, as the narrative shifts from the present-day lives to Lucien Segura's past, and suddenly it is the French writer's story that dominates. It's a big leap to make, and while Ondaatje can hold his readers with that tale too it's hard to so abruptly leave the others behind: a novel that has already been drifting becomes oddly bifurcated. Echoes resound throughout -- it is, at least on some levels, a unified work -- but the characters that peopled the first part of the narrative are missed.
       There are many wonderful scenes in the book; it's amazing sometimes what Ondaatje can do. And yet the seemingly effortless command almost undermines the work, in not forcing a tighter focus or forcing him to work it out on the page.
       Odd, too, for someone so sure of his presentation is his need to explain -- most notably with place/names. So Anna says, at one point:

I come from Divisadero Street. 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. Or it might derive from the word divisar, meaning 'to gaze at something from a distance.'
       While similarly Lucien Segura finds:
     Sometimes he lost that crucial part of himself that allowed him to feel secure. Segura. The irony of his name was not lost on him. The safe world disappeared.
       Divisadero is a book of repetition and echoes. "'We have art,' Nietzsche said, 'so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth'" we are told in the brief opening section, and it will be repeated again later -- as are other observations. It is also a book full of doubled-lives, and losses: if Segura is occasionally without "that crucial part", others are more consistently missing it; indeed, all the other characters, from the taciturn father on down, seem to be missing a vital other half: division and loss -- and their lasting effects -- are everywhere. And even the adult Claire, who seems to lead at least the most regular life, "had been living two lives":, unable to bring them together or even openly admit to both.
       Divisadero is a pleasure to read, and there's enough commonality -- themes, echoes, variations -- in the diverging stories to give it an underlying unified feel. Still, there is a lot of drifting here, too, and the jump from one world (Claire/Anna/Coop) to another (Segura) is a big and somewhat frustrating hurdle, making for a less than entirely satisfying read.

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Divisadero: Reviews: Michael Ondaatje: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Michael Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka in 1943, but has lived in Canada since 1962. He is a highly-regarded poet and novelist.

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© 2007-2010 the complete review

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