Review: Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

Genre:  Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction Age Level: Adult Series: N/A Pages: Hardcover - 312 Publisher: US: Alfred A. Knopf
Genre: Literary Fiction
Age Level: Adult
Series: N/A
Pages: Hardcover – 312
Publisher: US: Alfred A. Knopf

With his first novel since the internationally acclaimed The English Patient, Booker Prize-winning author Michael Ondaatje gives us a work displaying all the richness of imagery and language and the piercing emotional truth that we have come to know as the hallmarks of his writing.

Anil’s Ghost transports us to Sri Lanka, a country steeped in centuries of tradition, now forced into the late twentieth century by the ravages of civil war. Into this maelstrom steps Anil Tissera, a young woman born in Sri Lanka, educated in England and America, who returns to her homeland as a forensic anthropologist sent by an international human rights group to discover the source of the organized campaigns of murder engulfing the island. What follows is a story about love, about family, about identity, about the unknown enemy, about the quest to unlock the hidden past–a story propelled by a riveting mystery. Unfolding against the deeply evocative background of Sri Lanka’s landscape and ancient civilization, Anil’s Ghost is a literary spellbinder–Michael Ondaatje’s most powerful novel yet.


“Secrets turn powerless in the open air.”

Anil’s Ghost is a very powerful story about the civil war in Sri Lanka. It is country whose history is not widely known, whose crimes are not spoken of. For those, who like me, do not know about this war, I’ll give a brief summary. Sri Lanka is inhabited by two ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Both wanted to be in control and the Tamils, who are the minority wished to gain independence. Both groups massacred thousands in horrific ways until the end of the war in 2009.

At the beginning, in a brief author’s note, is the following:

“From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, Sri Lanka was in a crisis that involved three essential groups: the government, the antigovernment insurgents in the south and the separatist guerillas in the north. Both the insurgents and the separatists had declared was on the government. Eventually, in response, legal and illegal government squads were known to have been sent out to hunt down the separatists and the insurgents.”

Apart from this intro, the war is not explained in detail in the book, though you gradually begin to piece things together as the story progresses. This worked because there was no need to understand the politics behind it all, merely to recognize the horror of the events. The novel is not depressing because the war is not the main focus of the book, but the main setting. However, the story is incredibly effective in describing the senseless violence and the way the government denied it all to the world.

I must describe the writing before continuing. I would read just about anything that Ondaatje writes because the quality is unrivaled by any other author I have read. There have been some styles I like more, but they were specific to the story, whereas Ondaatje’s writing I could read forever and never need look for anything else. It takes time to get into, and the beginning of the book took me some time to get through as I had to break into into sections, but once I got reacquainted with it, I couldn’t put the book down. It is lyrical but precise and to the point. In never reveals more than is necessary and contains passage that stay in you mind forever.

Ondaatje does not write his stories as a linear progression of events, but as different layers that slowly unfold creating a panoramic scene. It jumps from the present to the recent past, to events that happened years ago, from one character to the next. Story lines get dropped and then picked up later only to be dropped once more and revisited later on. The central plot in the mystery of Sailor, a contemporary skeleton found in an old government site but we are treated to other perspectives as well, though never those directly involved in the war, unless very briefly.

Each place is described with such affection that they come alive and the the love or hate the characters have for each place was transferred to me. I can still see in my minds eye the monks temple and the old manor. The ship the Oronsay, the subject of Ondaatje’s next novel, The Cat’s Table, makes an appearance, which was really cool.

Like the settings, the characters come alive on the pages. Though told in third person, the story mostly reads like someones thoughts, jumping from one tangent to the next, stopping abruptly due to some distraction before continuing. You get to know each character in such a way that you feel as if you have seen into them; their souls. Some characters you get to know better than others, but for each character you discover their thoughts and dreams as well as how others see them.

The ending was shocking and happy and unresolved but still perfect.  I know this story will not be for everyone, but please give it a try.

Other quotes:

“For when people leave our company in our time we are never certain of seeing them again, or seeing them unaltered.”

“A person will walk through a hundred doors to carry out the whims of the dead, not realizing he is burying himself away from the others.”

Other books by Michael Ondaatje:

The Cat’s Table 

Have you read this book? What did you think? 


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