From the celebrated author of The English Patient and In the Skin of a Lion comes a remarkable new novel of intersecting lives that ranges across continents and time.
In the 1970s in Northern California, near Gold Rush country, a father and his teenage daughters, Anna and Claire, work their farm with the help of Coop, an enigmatic young man who makes his home with them. Theirs is a makeshift family, until it is riven by an incident of violence--of both hand and heart--that sets fire to the rest of their lives.
Divisadero takes us from the city of San Francisco to the raucous backrooms of Nevada's casinos and eventually to the landscape of south-central France. It is here, outside a small rural village, that Anna becomes immersed in the life and the world of a writer from an earlier time--Lucien Segura. His compelling story, which has its beginnings at the turn of the century, circles around "the raw truth" of Anna's own life, the one she's left behind but can never truly leave. And as the narrative moves back and forth in time and place, we discover each of the characters managing to find some foothold in a present rough hewn from the past.
Breathtakingly evoked and with unforgettable characters, Divisadero is a multilayered novel about passion, loss, and the unshakable past, about the often discordant demands of family, love, and memory. It is Michael Ondaatje's most intimate and beautiful novel to date.
Ondaatje's oddly structured but emotionally riveting fifth novel opens in the Northern California of the 1970s. Anna, who is 16 and whose mother died in childbirth, has formed a serene makeshift family with her same-age adopted sister, Claire, and a taciturn farmhand, Coop, 20. But when the girls' father, otherwise a ghostly presence, finds Anna having sex with Coop and beats him brutally, Coop leaves the farm, drawing on a cardsharp's skills to make an itinerant living as a poker player. A chance meeting years later reunites him with Claire. Runaway teen Anna, scarred by her father's savage reaction, resurfaces as an adult in a rural French village, researching the life of a Gallic author, Jean Segura, who lived and died in the house where she has settled. The novel here bifurcates, veering almost a century into the past to recount Segura's life before WWI, leaving the stories of Coop, Claire and Anna enigmatically unresolved. The dreamlike Segura novella, juxtaposed with the longer opening section, will challenge readers to uncover subtle but explosive links between past and present. Ondaatje's first fiction in six years lacks the gut punch of Anil's Ghost and the harrowing meditation on brutality that marked The English Patient, but delivers his trademark seductive prose, quixotic characters and psychological intricacy. (June)
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May 29, 2007
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Excerpt from Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje
By our grandfather's cabin, on the high ridge, opposite a slope of buckeye trees, Claire sits on her horse, wrapped in a thick blanket. She has camped all night and lit a fire in the hearth of that small structure our ancestor built more than a generation ago, and which he lived in like a hermit or some creature, when he first came to this country. He was a self-sufficient bachelor who eventually owned all the land he looked down onto. He married lackadaisically when he was forty, had one son, and left him this farm along the Petaluma road.
Claire moves slowly on the ridge above the two valleys full of morning mist. The coast is to her left. On her right is the journey to Sacramento and the delta towns such as Rio Vista with its populations left over from the Gold Rush.
She persuades the horse down through the whiteness alongside crowded trees. She has been smelling smoke for the last twenty minutes, and, on the outskirts of Glen Ellen, she sees the town bar on fire --the local arsonist has struck early, when certain it would be empty. She watches from a distance without dismounting. The horse, Territorial, seldom allows a remount; in this he can be fooled only once a day. The two of them, rider and animal, don't fully trust each other, although the horse is my sister Claire's closest ally. She will use every trick not in the book to stop his rearing and bucking. She carries plastic bags of water with her and leans forward and smashes them onto his neck so the animal believes it is his own blood and will calm for a minute. When Claire is on a horse she loses her limp and is in charge of the universe, a centaur. Someday she will meet and marry a centaur.
The fire takes an hour to burn down. The Glen Ellen Bar has always been the location of fights, and even now she can see scuffles starting up on the streets, perhaps to honour the landmark. She sidles the animal against the slippery red wood of a madrone bush and eats its berries, then rides down into the town, past the fire. Close by, as she passes, she can hear the last beams collapsing like a roll of thunder, and she steers the horse away from the sound.
On the way home she passes vineyards with their prehistoric-looking heat blowers that keep air moving so the vines don't freeze. Ten years earlier, in her youth, smudge pots burned all night to keep the air warm.
Most mornings we used to come into the dark kitchen and silently cut thick slices of cheese for ourselves. My father drinks a cup of red wine. Then we walk to the barn. Coop is already there, raking the soiled straw, and soon we are milking the cows, our heads resting against their flanks. A father, his two eleven-year-old daughters, and Coop the hired hand, a few years older than us. No one has talked yet, there's just been the noise of pails or gates swinging open.
Coop in those days spoke sparingly, in a low-pitched monologue to himself, as if language was uncertain. Essentially he was clarifying what he saw--the light in the barn, where to climb the approaching fence, which chicken to cordon off, capture, and tuck under his arm. Claire and I listened whenever we could. Coop was an open soul in those days. We realized his taciturn manner was not a wish for separateness but a tentativeness about words. He was adept in the physical world where he protected us. But in the world of language he was our student.
At that time, as sisters, we were mostly on our own. Our father had brought us up single-handed and was too busy to be conscious of intricacies. He was satisfied when we worked at our chores and easily belligerent when it became difficult to find us. Since the death of our mother it was Coop who listened to us complain and worry, and he allowed us the stage when he thought we wished for it. Our father gazed right through Coop. He was training him as a farmer and nothing else.