Complexity of Ondaatje's new novel a driving challenge

Michael Ondaatje's new novel has been both praised and dissed in the initial reviews. It's been called everything from "achingly beautiful" to "restless" to "consistently portentous" and "numbing."

Begging off, for the moment, on taking either side, the strong differences of opinion mean one more thing: This is a complex novel.

And alas, it showcases one of the few shortcomings of audio books. With audio, it's difficult, if not impossible, to do the equivalent of flipping back a few pages to check a date, a place, a name.

Anna is the rancher's daughter, his wife having died in childbirth. Claire is the girl he adopts, her own mother having died in the same hospital at the same time as Anna's.

But it took Ondaatje so long to finish being poetic about it - which brings strength and beauty, if also confusion, to his writing - that I had to listen to the passage twice to get the distinction.

With audio, it's impossible to browse chapter headings to see how they relate. It strains both sanity and, if you're in a car, highway safety to try to go back and answer the question, "Now wait a minute. Didn't he just . . . ?"

A spell-it-out author is a cinch to follow. One like Ondaatje can be tough.

That's how it is with Divisadero, which Random House has recorded unabridged (8 hours, $39.95 on CD), with Hope Davis narrating.

Anna and Claire grow up almost as twins, yet still separate. A cowhand on the ranch, Coop, is like a brother, and yet not. He, too, came to live with the family after tragedy. When he was a toddler, he saw his parents murdered.

When the girls are 16, Anna's father discovers her and Coop making love. He viciously attacks Coop, and the only way Anna can stop him is by stabbing him in the shoulder with a large shard of broken window.

Then she runs away, discarding her old self, even her old name. Here, the characters' stories diverge and arc into the future, alternating in the telling.

Claire becomes a legal assistant, and we meet her again only when she astoundingly comes across Coop in a distant city one day.

Coop is a poker pro, and he's in trouble.

Anna, meanwhile, is mooning away in France, studying the life of a tragic poet - who also, oddly enough, becomes a central character in the novel. She also starts a romance with a musician who, as a youth, knew the poet. Except, for a while, I mistakenly thought the musician had been the poet's son. Or something like that.

Sometimes I stayed the course, hoping my confusion would clear. Other times, I fumbled with my player's buttons, trying to find my way back to where my and Ondaatje's paths had diverged.

For all that, Divisadero is a beautiful, haunting novel, made even more so by Davis' narration. She might not consider this a compliment, but she sounds dreamy, almost as if she's been mildly dulled by some drug and is recalling events from long ago.

It's as if she's both distant and close, losing herself in memory, sometimes hesitating or straining, yet at the same time leaning forward to stare at you, insisting, "Let me tell you a story." It works.

So, in the end, does the novel, I suppose. It wasn't as vivid as two earlier novels, Anil's Ghost and Ondaatje's early hit, The English Patient.

But I was seduced all the same. Sometime, I might even pick up the print version and, with Davis' crooning clear in my mind, clear up a few remaining mysteries.


Contact Inquirer staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com. To read recent columns and hear audio clips, go to http://go.philly.com/sandybauers.