Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje
This book is either a failure or presents the reader with a new and unfamiliar structure. I prefer to see it as the latter, though like other readers, I was initially disappointed not to know any more about the initial set of characters.
The story begins with a father whose wife dies in childbirth and when he takes his baby daughter home, he also takes home another baby girl whose mother also died but who had no family to take her in. The two girls, Anna and Claire, are raised together. A third child, Coop, also joins the family when his parents are murdered and he escapes by hiding. He’s somewhat older than the girls. Predictably, there’s a teenage affair between Coop and one of the girls—Anna, the natural daughter. They’re making love in a cabin on the farm near Petaluma when a huge storm arises and the father comes to warn Coop. His anger at the violation of his daughter knows no bounds; he almost kills Coop until Anna saves him by taking a shard to glass to her father. She runs away. Claire saves Coop and he too leaves.
The reader expects some reconciliation, but the novel is not about reconciliation but about how the past affects the present. Coop becomes a cool gambler in Nevada and accidentally meets Claire who’s an investigator for a California lawyer. She saves him when he gets mixed up with some lowlifes he can’t control. But mostly the second half of the novel focuses on a French writer of the WWI generation, the subject of Anna’s academic research. She goes to the isolated French countryside where he resided and pieces together his life, having an affair with Rafael, the descendant of peasants on Lucian Segura’s land, who actually knew Segura as an old man.
The point is not that Anna achieves peace, love and reconciliation finally, but that as her life has been shaped by that one monstrous night on the California farm, so is Segura’s life shaped by the monstrous events in his life, including his experiences in WWI. The parallels and echoes reverberate far beyond the lives of Anna and Segura so that the novel is ultimately more about the intrusions of the past into the present than about specific characters. And yet the characters are unique and memorable.
The prose is lovely. Usually I hate so-called "poetic” novels. That term is usually used for novels with smarmy descriptions that may or may not fit the novel. Ondaatje is just a master stylist, comfortable writing both prose and poems and certainly not someone who decorates a novel with unnecessary flourishes.