Synopses & Reviews
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 Nevadas 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 Annas own life, the one shes 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 multi-layered novel about passion, loss, and the unshakable past, about the often discordant demands of family, love, and memory. It is Michael Ondaatjes most intimate and beautiful novel to date.
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Michael Ondaatje is the author of the novels In the Skin of a Lion
, The English Patient
, and Anils Ghost
. His other books include Running in the Family
, Coming Through Slaughter
, The Cinnamon Peeler
, and Handwriting
. He lives in Toronto.
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
1. "The raw truth of an incident never ends," Anna says (p. 1). What might she mean by this, and how is her statement borne out in the course of the novel?
2. Setting plays a large role in Divisadero. How does Ondaatje characterize the Northern California countryside of Annas childhood? How would you compare it to the French countryside where Segura spends his life and where the grown-up Anna retraces it? To what extent are this novels characters connected to their physical environments?
3. Anna is an only child, but one with two adoptive siblings. So, for that matter, are Claire and Coop. What is the significance of adoption in this novel? Are its "natural" children necessarily the most favored? Which of these characters becomes an orphan later on, by necessity or by choice? How might losing ones original family have an effect, for better or for worse? Why do you think Anna is introduced in a chapter titled “The Orphan”? And what might she mean when she observes, "Those who have an orphans sense of history love history"?
4. Because they were raised together, Annas affair with Coop has incestuous overtones. Is that why you think her father reacts so brutally when he finds them together? Might this be what drives her to reject her former life, or do you think theres another reason? Compare this liaison with the novels other quasi-incestuous pairings: the young Lucien Segura and Marie-Neige, who has become a symbolic sister to him; Luciens daughter Lucette and her younger sisters fiancé; Marie-Neige and her husband when they masquerade as brother and sister. How does the author seem to view these relationships? Do they seem to represent a perversion of intimacy or a heightening of it?
5. Closely aligned with the theme of incest is that of hidden or mistaken identity, a theme suggested by the Sanskrit term gotraskhalana, which denotes "calling a loved one by a wrong name." Which of Ondaatjes characters pretends to be someone else? Which of them mistakes one person for another, or is misled into doing so? Which of them sloughs off a name, like the thief who calls himself Liébard and then, suddenly, on a whim, Astolphe? What do these impostures and confusions suggest about the nature of identity? Why might Liébard/Astolphe refuse to be photographed?
6. The past — both personal and collective — plays an important role in Divisadero. After turning her back on her childhood, Anna becomes an archivist, cataloguing the past via Lucien Segura's life. After two brutal beatings as a result of his love affairs, Coop forgets his past. How does the past function in these instances, among others? Would you say these characters are trapped in it or sustained by it?
7. At what points does history intrude into this novel, and with what effect? Why might Ondaatje have chosen to set one scene involving Coop during the first Gulf War and another on the eve of the 2003 Iraq invasion?
8. How is the theme of the past reflected in the novels chronological scheme, which moves from the 1970s to 2003, then backward in time to the turn of the last century, then forward once more? Why might Ondaatje have chosen to structure Divisadero this way? How does this affect the novel's sense of suspense, and how might you relate this to the kind of suspense that young Lucien and Marie-Neige find in The Black Tulip?
9. Most of Ondaatje's characters are looking for something or someone: Anna for a long-dead writer, Coop for love and treasure (dredged from the river or extracted from the suckers at a card table), Claire for Coop. Discuss the role quests play in Divisadero. How, in particular, do they form a bridge between the novel's present and its multiple pasts? Which of the characters' quests is destructive, and which useful, even vital?
10. There are certain key repetitions in the novel. Discuss the doubling (and sometimes more than doubling) of the following: an attack by an animal, a woman nursing an injured man, a father coming upon his daughter making love, a man imparting a skill or craft to a younger one.
11. What role does craft play in this novel? Discuss those scenes in which someone learns to, for example, build a cabin, or deal poker, or repair a clock, or write a novel. What — apart from the skill — is being imparted? What distinguishes those characters who have mastered a craft from those who haven't?
12. Most of Divisaderos characters are motivated by love, of various sorts. How does Ondaatje characterize these kinds of love? Which kinds are exalting and which degrading, and why? Compare Anna's love for Coop to the love that Claire feels for him, Coop's love for Anna to that he later feels for Bridget, Rafaels love of his mother to Seguras love of his daughter Lucette.
13. The novel takes its name from a street in San Francisco where Anna lives for a while. In Spanish the word means both a division and a vantage point (pp. 142-3). Does this double meaning suggest a way of looking at — viewing — the entire novel?
14. At least two of this books narratives lack an obvious conclusion. Why might Ondaatje have chosen to end them when he does? How is this related to Annas aforementioned statement: "The raw truth of an incident never ends"?