"... Ondaatje stressed the importance of place and having a landscape in which to envision his work. 'I can’t begin a book with an idea, or it peters out after about two pages,' he said. 'Location is essential. Once I know when and where it’s happening, it creates a situation for a story. It’s almost like a plot, a landscape.'”
This quotation (it's from a 2012 feature story in the Chicago Maroon, student newspaper of the University of Chicago) helped me a great deal to formulate for myself how this novel by Ondaatje differs from most fiction I've read. One difference, certainly, is that the prose is more poetic than most, with unexpected metaphors teasing around your understanding of the plain sense of the narrative, distracting and at the same time delighting you with their oddness, and, if you can decode them, their rich appropriateness. An example found just by opening a page at random: "Patrick stares at the thin layer of moonlight on the wall. His body feels like the shadow of someone in chains."
In this context, it is neither plot progression - the point of view and timelines jump about a lot - nor character - the main characters are notably dynamic but not necessarily deeply examined - but the rock-solid sense of location that grounds you and encourages you to continue on with this story. It's been a couple of months since I finished it, and what stands out to me most clearly are vivid pictures of locations, in many cases locations in or near Toronto that I know of: the Bloor Viaduct Bridge, the water filtration plant that looks like a palace, and has deep underground pipes that go miles out into the lake. All of these have some added moment of action that fixes them in your mind: the nun falling off the partially constructed Bloor Viaduct Bridge, for instance. In this novel, Ondaatje also fixes his story very firmly in time, bringing in the real-life disappearance of Ambrose Small, as well as both the massive and visionary building projects and the violent labour unrest.
Through this, our main character Patrick charts his chequered career, at a certain point taking on the lion-skin, as it were, of a saboteur and rebel, in place of his lover Clara's previous and now deceased lover.
There's more Ondaatje in my future: the delights far outweigh the difficulties.