In a recent interview, novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje likened the work of a writer to that of an archaeologist. "How one deals with the past," he said, "has always been a very important thing in my work." His elegant and deeply satisfying new novel, DIVISADERO, offers ample support for that self-characterization in the way it focuses on the power of love and memory to sustain connections over large stretches of space and time.
The plot of DIVISADERO unfolds in two broad, loosely connected narratives. The first involves two sisters, Anna and Claire, who are raised by their emotionally distant father on a northern California farm. As a teenager, Anna falls in love with a handsome and enigmatic farmhand by the name of Coop, who the family had taken in as a child when his parents were murdered. The relationship between the two lovers is shattered by an act of violence that is barely explicable and chilling in its brutality. Coop drifts into the life of a professional poker player in the casinos and Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, and eventually reconnects with Claire, who works as an investigator for a San Francisco public defender. Anna becomes a writer who travels to France to research the life and work of an obscure French author by the name of Lucien Segura. She inhabits the farmhouse in which Segura once lived, and her lover Rafael, whose gypsy family lived on a portion of the same property, connects her life to that of the long dead writer.
The other narrative recounts the life of Segura in France in the early part of the 20th century. From Segura's blinding in a childhood accident reminiscent of the traumatic event that separated Anna and Coop, to his lifelong infatuation with Marie-Neige, a poor young woman who takes up residence with a husband twice her age in a cottage on the Segura family homestead, Ondaatje explores the beauty and isolation of the creative mind and the power of love to sustain passion for another over the course of a lifetime.
As one would expect from a poet of Ondaatje's considerable talents, DIVISADERO is suffused with radiant prose. Whether he's describing the rugged farm country of northern California or the harsh beauty and occasional cruelty of life in a French village, his eye is fixed firmly on telling sensory details that bring his settings vividly to life. One character imagines a bird's eye view of the world, picturing "petite life on earth, a drifting of voices, the creak of a wagon, the retort and smoke from a gun among the almond trees…with only the essential notes of life reaching you through that distance of air." Another contrasts her life of rural poverty with that of "a rich man on horseback who galloped across the world, riding into a forest just to inhale its wet birch leaves after a storm." In countless other passages, and in writing that is expressive without being ornate or precious, Ondaatje patiently layers one such vivid image upon another to weave a tapestry of arresting beauty.
DIVISADERO is decidedly not a work for readers seeking a fast-paced plot or tidy resolutions. Ondaatje's technique, forsaking linear plot development and resisting the temptation to make facile connections between his overlapping narratives, is likely to frustrate those accustomed to more conventional storytelling structures. Time fractures and circles back on itself, and the aftershocks of traumatic events ripple ceaselessly through the lives of the characters, "the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms and are songlike in their refrains and rhymes, making up a single monologue," Ondaatje writes. For his characters, "the raw truth of an episode never ends." The beauty of the novel, and the reward it offers to thoughtful readers (and perhaps re-readers), is the opportunity to ferret out connections that are only hinted at with a tantalizing obliqueness in the text itself.
"With memory, with the reflection of an echo, a gate opens both ways," Ondaatje writes. "We can circle time. A paragraph or an episode from another era will haunt us in the night, as the words of a stranger can." In shimmering prose that is as evocative as it is full of truth, DIVISADERO reminds us again of this poignant reality of our existence.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on December 29, 2010