DIVISADERO by Michael Ondaatje (McClelland & Stewart), 273 pages, $34.99 cloth. Rating: NN Rating: NN
The somewhat irksome and un memorable title of Michael Ondaatje's fifth novel is derived from the Spanish word for division.
Fitting, since Divisadero tracks three fractured lives brought together and then driven apart by an act of rage-filled violence, and fitting also because this book is guaranteed to divide readers who swallowed up similar structural devices in Ondaatje's other work, notably The English Patient.
It's the story of Anna, whose mother has died in childbirth, her adopted sister Claire and Coop, the solitary farmhand with whom the teenaged Anna has an affair. When Anna's father discovers the relationship, he beats Coop almost to death, sending the three in different directions.
Several years later, Claire, who has become a lawyer, has an accidental encounter with Coop, for whom she has harboured feelings. Coop, like a character out of a yellowed pulp novel, has become a card sharp and a cheat, albeit one with some principles, who runs afoul of a group of fellow gamblers known as the Brethren.
Anna, on the run since the night of her father's discovery, has moved into a Gallic homestead once owned by a famous French novelist, Lucien Segura. Segura's romanticized life story makes up the final third of the book, leaving Anna, Claire and Coop's stories unfinished.
While there are wisps of connections, parallels and entanglements between the characters' stories, none of them feels truly linked to the other once they've gone their separate ways. Coop's tale, a mini-page-turner, feels plopped in from a paperback noir, while Segura's is the only one fully fleshed out and complete.
Divisadero is frustratingly disjointed and unsatisfying despite the seductive prose and the compellingly heartfelt characters trapped in their tragic dramas.