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Divisadero (2007)

Divisadero (2007)
3.47 of 5 Votes: 3
0307266354 (ISBN13: 9780307266354)
knopf publishing group
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Divisadero (2007)
Divisadero (2007)

About book: I was well into Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje’s very fine latest work, thinking about how appropriate the title was, remembering that Divisadero (Sp. for “divided”) Street in San Francisco once was a major dividing line in the city but unable to remember what it separated. I’d have to look it up, I thought, to write this blog. Then Ondaatje did it for me and added another dimension as well. The street was the border between the city and the fields of the presidio, between the civilians and the soldiers. There’s also a variation of the Spanish word that means to look out or gaze, and there’s a Divisadero Heights near the street, which I didn’t know about. So in addition to the pain of separation which infuses the book, there’s also a sense of peering into the future and the past. It’s a perfect metaphor for the characters and action in this complex, poetic novel. The story begins as one of Divisadero become united. In Northern California in the 70’s a cobbled-together family consisting of a father, his daughter, whose mother died in childbirth, a foundling girl whose mother also died in childbirth on the same day as the daughter, and an orphaned boy boy from a nearby farm. The family creates a viable, if rather isolated and odd, existence in the hills outside Petaluma. Then, Anna at 16 and Cooper (Coop) at 20 begin their affair. Dad catches them. There’s graphic and ugly violence, and thus begins the Divisadero that is the true focus of the book. Years later, we find Claire (the “adopted” daughter) in and around Petaluma/San Francisco, Coop in Vegas as a card sharp, and Anna in France working on a biography of an obscure writer. Except the facts behind those facts are deeper. Anna is living and working in the very house of the writer she’s studying and having an affair with a man who lives nearby and, when he was a boy, knew the writer. Coop is a gambler who’s able to walk away from a card game. Claire works for a public defender, an investigator analogous to, but not at all identical to Anna’s wandering through the past lives of her writer. She’s in some ways a caretaker for both her boss, prone to DUI, and her father, with whom she spends weekends. All the characters, then, are on the periphery of their personal worlds, none wholly invested in any reality. And there are now two or three novels. The story of Anna in France is not merely an account of her life separate from her family. It becomes the story of her writer, intertwined with the story of her lover, and she becomes at some point one of the writer-narrators telling the other two stories. Ondaatje obviously means the California story to parallel the French one. There is the haunting image of a blue table, for example. And intertwined metaphors of maps and lives and plenteous confusion between reality, illusion, past, and present. In one reading, I could not quite tie the two worlds together to my satisfaction. It was as if I were reading not just about parallel lives on the same planet, but lives in some kind of parallel universe. But that’s on me. Not smart enough. And mostly I didn’t mind. As one reviewer put it, reading Ondaatje’s prose is like listening to music. It’s an experience that often needs no reference point outside itself to convey great satisfaction and meaning. I’ve read neither of Ondaatje’s two other celebrated works--The English Patient (saw the movie, though, if that counts) nor Anil’s Ghost--but they’ve gone on my list. After reading Junot Diaz, I’ve now hit on Michael Ondaatje. And Obama is President. And it’s turning into a great year.

Again, read this in tall narrow house in Nerja, Spain, overlooking Andalucean mountains. Had it on my table to read for months, and didn't get round to it. What I really loved about this book was the fact that Ondaatje is brave enough to let his fiction/story/narrative take him where he pleases. He doesn't feel constrained by some imaginary editor sitting on his shoulder saying critically 'you can't do that' or 'the publisher won't like that.' The beginning of the book opens with a painful love triangle, two sisters, a sort of cuckoo Heathcliff character, and a father who reacts violently to finding his daughter 'intimate' (I'm so polite!!!) with the boy. What is amazing is that the narrative then seems to leave these characters completely behind, and the busybody editor in me was saying 'but surely they would tell him - you are not in control of your narrative, you must get back on track'. And yet it worked. Two thirds of the way through you realised that he knew what he was doing after all; he was spreading the story thinly, and created not one but (I counted them) six different love triangles throughout the story, all gently linked simply by virtue of their symmetry. The stories were poles apart, in different countries and time periods, but it worked so beautifully. And that is what took my breath away - the realisation that you can forget the advice of the editor on your shoulder, causing too much restraint, and go with your instinct. The other thing which struck me was that the publishers obviously didn't know how to express this in a blurb, because the back cover only mentions the first love triangle, which is slightly misleading because the novel is actually much more than that. But then again, how do you express that in a blurb? Ondaatje is the only novelist I know who has the courage to keep you guessing, to make you realise that you have to be patient, that although he may seem to be going off on a tangent, there is an order of some kind - it's just not the one you expected, and it's certainly not the one that fits the usual conventions of what publishers expect of plot. But that's why I like him. He's unpredictable and gives me the courage to write how I want to write, without constraint.
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God I did not like this book. Really, really did not like it. I read all the 4 and 5 star reviews, I get what people are saying, and I'm just not there. Why get us interested in characters and then abandon them? and why spend time telling us boring things about them (like a whole paragraph describing how she planted seeds in the field by scattering them instead of burying them) and then we find out about major dramatic events only in one passing sentence told as a part of someone else's narrative (like "------ was put in prison for nearly killing a man in a jealous rage"). This was like a bunch of pieces of stories. I get it - Divisadero. They're being divided. Lots and lots of divisions. And yes, we have a dark and stormy night, and bad things happen, and the snow comes down, and people are feeling upset - Isn't this a bit heavy handed? Never mind that setting a book in Northern California should prevent an ice storm from occurring (and no, it doesn't work for me to throw in a line later saying it was a rare event). And the last thing that drove me crazy was how the book just leaves out the How of things. There is no connection from one event to another - you are just supposed to leap. They know each other, and now they are sleeping together. We see no evidence of romance building, but boom there it is. So, it was not believable, and just felt like some clever writerly experiment. Which was not a pleasure to read.
This was a fascinating unfolding of story, and simply heavenly writing. What a giant he is.Divisadero begins as a Steinbeckian story of a small family in the Gold Rush country of California, circa around 1970--a rancher and his two daughters (his wife has died giving birth to one of them, and he left the hospital with another baby, whose mother has similarly died giving birth two her), plus the hired hand, who was taken in by the rancher when his own family was murdered, leaving him the sole survivor, and follows them (the natural daughter, Anna, is the only one with a first person point of view, the other two young people are told in third person.) through a terrible incident which explodes the family, into the separate lives of each of them as they grow older. But Ondaatje's project is far different than Steinbeck's, which is to go further and further into the soil of that particular landscape and unfold it completely. Ondaatje's is about fragmentation, the fragmentation of life, and how people change one another as they enter each others' lives, if only for a little while. Anna, the first person narrator, becomes an archivist, and we find her in France, working on the papers of a mysterious minor writer, Lucien, and enter his life, and a family of 'travelers' he later encounters. The book becomes more labyrinthine in the second part, and there are wonderful echoes between the various parts of the story, which is a delicate construction of extremely collapsable parts, which could come apart at any moment, but the voice--the author's voice--is so strong and knowledgeable and clearly capable of anything, we just ride right along with him.The title, Divisadero, is the name of a street in San Francisco, which had been the dividing line between the city proper and the pastures of the Presidio, the military base. But it's a lot about people leaving on borders, of their own lives--people who have walked out of one life and are never fully integrated into another one. And the language here, the confidence of the way he puts these disparate elements together, lightly, so lightly, it makes reading the book a lot like sitting out on a summer night watching the Northern Lights. God knows what it "means", you just lie out and watch it dance.
b borkent
as usual Ondaatje incorporates some beautiful imagery and there are some really outstanding sections of this book. However, on the whole, a disjointed piece with a whole lot of exposition and background description, but no sense of resolution to 2 out of 3 parts of the story. The good part, near the end, is just a back story about a character that is already dead and has almost nothing to do with the rest of the book at all. One of the very main characters is conveniently beaten to crap and has amnesia, and that's where his story ends. Come on! It's no wonder this book was passed over for prizes this year.
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