Rhapsody of a family made, then unmade

Raised as siblings, three children go on to face different destinies.

Published May 27, 2007

Divisadero, the San Francisco street that gives Michael Ondaatje the title for his fifth novel, comes from the Spanish for "division." Or, Ondaatje adds, "It might derive from the word divisar, meaning 'to gaze at a distance.' "

Either applies here, since images of division and distant gazing abound in this beautifully crafted tale of separated sisters and torn-apart lovers, a story that ranges from the California Sierras to the south of France, and over decades.

Ondaatje is a poet as well as a novelist, and it's fair to say that his novels are also poems, their characters and story lines defined by parallelism and metaphor. Divisadero is sure to make a stunning film, as Ondaatje's The English Patient did.

Three children grow up together in the Sierra foothills. Anna's mother died in childbirth, and her father adopts Claire, the child of another mother who died that week. Earlier the father had taken in Coop, the only survivor of a neighbor family murdered by a deranged farmhand.

Anna, who will later become a writer, seems to be the implicit narrator of the book, even though much of it is told in third person.

As the children grow toward adulthood, Coop and Anna become lovers. They are discovered by her father, who savagely beats Coop. Anna runs away, never to see the farm again.

From this division will spring the separate lives and destinies of Anna, Claire and Coop, none to meet again for years to come. Ondaatje moves skillfully through their separate stories, following a story line formed not by direct actions but from divisions, separations and gaps in time.

However, metaphor is scaffolding and refrain for a novelist like Ondaatje. There are card sharks and gypsies, a whole string of lovers and betrayals, carnivals, casinos and even a (suitably dead) French poet. The essence of this fine novel is summed up in its haikulike closing sentence: "Some birds in the almost-dark are flying as close to their reflections as possible."

David Walton is a writer who lives in Pittsburgh. 


By Michael Ondaatje

Knopf, 274 pages, $25