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August 15, 2022

Review in Haiku: Divisadero

By Katrina Stonoff

Makeshift family,
torn apart by violence,
remains divided.

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje is a literary masterpiece with soaring language and characters that live on long after the last page is turned.

The first half of the book is about a makeshift family in northern California in the 1970s: a single father, his daughter Anna (whose birth resulted in her mother's death), a girl he raises as a twin to his daughter, and a farmhand a few years older than the girls who joins the family when his own parents are brutally murdered. The farmhand falls for one of the daughters, but a violent episode tears them all apart.

Divisadero is timeless in a way, in the way that human beings don't change much over the millennia. The first section, when the trio are teens, could have been set almost any time from 1800 on, so it's disconcerting to remember the girls were born approximately the same year I was.

The last half of the book takes place much later and follows the girls and the farmhand as adults. Anna is studying a fictional French poet (whose life is narrated in the last section). Claire, the adopted daughter, has remained on the farm and married a local man. Coop, the farmhand, moves about the professional poker circuit.

But the makeshift family is divided. The three have little to do with one another, and consequently, the narratives in the second half have little to link them together. But perhaps division is exactly what one should expect from a book called Divisadero.

"I come from Divisadero Street," Anna says. "Divisadero, from the Spanish word for 'division,' the street that at one time was the dividing line between San Francisco and the fields of the Presidio. Or it might derive from the word divisar, meaning 'to gaze at something from a distance.'"

While I was fascinated by the sections that take place in California, my interest lagged in the last half of the book. The later scenes felt emotionally flat, the colors all faded to gray. Perhaps Ondaatje was trying to depict the featureless landscape of someone with chronic depression, and that definitely worked. But because the intensity was dampened, my emotional involvement also decreased. Also, I was not interested in the French poet, and I failed to see the connection between him and the splintered quasi-family (though I suspect a study of the book would show the connection fairly quickly).

I wanted to study the novel, to uncover the secrets Ondaatje gives up so begrudgingly. But I just wasn't enough emotionally invested in it, so other books, other stories drew me away.

Still, for the language alone, anything Ondaatje writes is worth the investment in time. And the characters were vivid enough, and the early story powerful enough, to propel the reader through the entire book.

Divisadero may be flawed, but it's still a masterpiece.

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-11-17
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