This is a fair description of the book itself, and one of the several places where Anna seems to speak for the author, who started as a poet, more than usually explicitly. Divisadero itself, as Anna later explains, while being the name of the San Francisco street she lives on, also means “a point from which you can look far into the distance. It is what I do with my work, I suppose. I look into the distance for those I have lost, so that I see them everywhere.” Loss, and the potency of the past, and those known and loved then are the themes this book returns to time and again.
Briefly, the book divides into two sections. One is the story of Anna and Claire, brought up as sisters in rural Petaluma by a taciturn father who has also taken in an orphaned boy, Cooper. When the girls are sixteen this assembled family is exploded by a violent incident which drives them apart and, as Anna says, sets fire to her life.
Jump to years later: Anna works as a historian, studying other people’s pasts while hiding from her own. Claire is a legal investigator, probing others’ present lives, but emotionally disengaged. Cooper, a gambler, is seduced by a woman living in the eternal now of drugs; their encounter leaves him severely damaged, memory destroyed--barely human, Ondaatje suggests.
Anna provides the bridge to the second story when she travels to rural south-central France to research the life of poet Lucien Segura, whose story is interspersed with hers: pre-World War II years of peasant life, the horrors of the war, his later flight from a failed marriage deeper into the countryside.
Both stories are intriguing, but how does the second story amplify the first? This is the question readers will debate. Of all Ondaatje’s fictional leaps, it is the widest. The theme of the weight of the past echoes across the divide, but is it sufficient to unify such disparate narratives into one?
For me the familiar pleasures of reading Ondaatje largely suffice: his gorgeous evocation of places and their histories, fascination with human work and the act of creation, the poetic precision of his language. As usual, he fractures the narrative, skipping in time and space and between characters, inviting the reader to engage with the text to put the pieces together.
This is vintage Ondaatje, more reminiscent of The Skin of the Lion and The English Patient than the more recent Anil’s Ghost. Yet Divisadero struck me as simultaneously more obscure and more explicit than any of these. Perhaps because of the disunity of the two stories, he is more overt about its themes—you feel him throwing them as lines over the chasm. If the echoes had been stronger and thus there’d been less need to explain, this might have been a great book. As it is, it is still very good Ondaatje, which is saying quite a lot.