In the Skin of a Lion

The book that changed my life

The truth is that when I try to think of a book which changed my life, the only one that comes to mind is my first novel, In the City by the Sea. When it was accepted for publication, I went from being an “aspiring writer” to a “writer” proper, and the whole world seemed altered as a consequence. But when I think of the books I have loved, I am unable to draw a line between any one of them and a specific change in my life. It is nearer the truth to say that while I am in good part defined by the books I have read, the effect on my life of individual books is more like that of raindrops – some larger, some smaller – than a great bolt of lightning.

But there is one book in particular that seems to alert me to the ways in which I have changed, because every time I read it, it strikes me as something transformed from the time before. And yet the changes are clearly in me, not it. I first read Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion when I was 21, and I’ve been rereading it at regular intervals ever since.

When I first read it, it was the astonishing images that stayed with me: a man wiping off yellow paint from around the eyes of a woman he barely knows, her “blue left iris wavering at the closeness”; a nun falling off a bridge at night like a “black-garbed bird”, her plummeting body illuminated by the light spraying down from a flare; a thief who escapes from prison by painting himself and his clothes the same blue as the roof of the jail and lying down on the roof when the guards aren’t looking, instantly making himself invisible.

The second time I read it, it was a love triangle, with the motor of a thriller moving the plot forward. Patrick Lewis is a “searcher” looking for the billionaire Ambrose Small, who disappeared years before. In his attempts to find the missing man, he falls in love, first with Small’s former lover Clara Dickens, and then – when she leaves him for Small again – with her best friend, Alice Gull.

The third time it was a book that honoured the hard labour of migrants and their contribution to the cities they adopt. Set in the Toronto of the 1920s, the novel tells of tunnel-builders, bridge-builders, tanners, butchers – all migrants, all integral to the making of their new home.

The fourth time, it was a companion to Ondaatje’s The English Patient, characters and their memories moving from one book to the other, completing a picture that had never seemed incomplete until you put the two parts together.

The fifth time – I’m not sure it was the fifth time; I’m only pretending to have an exact sense of chronology, but I do know it was soon after 11 September 2001 – it was a book that showed how a man of decency and humanity could strap dynamite to his chest and set off to blow up (though ultimately he chooses not to) one of the great symbols of capitalism, a system he has seen trampling on the weak.

The sixth time, it struck me as a book which, more than any other, captures the anguish of a writer who has to kill off a beloved character. As the lovers Patrick and Alice lie in a field next to each other, we learn of Patrick: “He has come across a love story. This is only a love story. He does not wish for plot and all its consequences. Let me stay in this field with Alice Gull . . .” In that last sentence, it is the writer speaking. But he must write the next page, and we must turn to the next page, and one of the lovers will die.

Now, when I read In the Skin of a Lion, I encounter not only the words on the page, but all the younger versions of me that read those words and found different aspects of them affecting me more deeply at one age than another. But through all these readings, this much has remained constant – for all its variations and possibilities, I’ve always regarded it as a singular masterpiece.

A new edition of “In the Skin of a Lion” will be published by Bloomsbury in October
“Burnt Shadows” (Bloomsbury) by Kamila Shamsie was shortlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!