My Impressions of Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje #SriLankan #HistoricalFiction #HistFic #amwriting #amreading #books #novel #mustread #review

For the next installment in my Historical Fiction Around the World series, I chose what turned out to be a quick and enjoyable read. I hadn’t read anything else by this author, but Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost turned out to be a good read. Set in Sri Lanka in the 1980-90s, this fictional tale is intended to highlight the political crisis of that time. While technically not “historical” since it’s set less than 50 years from the present—copyrighted in 2000 in fact—the story does shed light on that decade. This story had been recommended to me as historical fiction but obviously it doesn’t fit that description. However, since I read it I’ll share my impressions anyway.

My overall impression of the story told is one of violence and the horror of people living through the ongoing nightmare of a civil war. In this case, a three-way fight between the government, antigovernment insurgents in the south, and separatist guerillas in the north of the country. Civilians got caught in the middle, including the doctors sometimes shanghaied to patch up the victims whether they wanted to or not. The main character, Anil, is a forensic scientist intent on solving a murder but she also is caught in the middle.

I appreciate the insights Mr. Ondaatje provides as to the life and times, the philosophical views of the ongoing war. I could empathize with the exhaustion of the characters, both physical and emotional. I wondered about how he conducted his research, how close to the actual actors in the real-life drama did he have to get to understand and then portray the depth and breadth of experience? One scene includes a man whose hands are nailed to the road, crucifixion style. I still have a hard time imagining people doing this to each other. How often did something like that actually happen? How did people react to such cruelty? Ondaatje describes how Anil and her colleague deal with the man humanely and professionally, but their emotional ties to him linger. They are not violent people but they are living within a violent world.

One of the lessons I’ve been learning by reading such a diverse, varied set of stories is what writing styles I enjoy and which ones I’m not that fond of. Mr. Ondaatje employs one technique that has its uses but in my humble opinion he overused it in this book. That technique is super short scenes. I’m talking a handful or so of paragraphs, some scenes not even one page in the book. I think that is a great way to shine a bright spotlight on a particular moment in time, whether an action, a conversation, or anything that is pivotal to the overall story, character development, or a hint at an upcoming plot twist. In Anil’s Ghost, there are many of these short scenes which at times made the story feel disjointed, choppy, maybe even disconnected.

Another confusing aspect to the style, or rather the typography, of the book is the use of italics for some scenes. I’m unclear as to the meaning for the shift from roman type to italics as those scenes were not from a specific person’s point of view, nor routinely a flashback or memory that I could discern. I’m assuming there is a reason for the italics, but I’m not sure what it is. If anyone knows, I’d love to have that explained. The editor in me is very curious as to what I missed.

So those are my thoughts about Anil’s Ghost. I liked the story overall. Mr. Ondaatje is a fine writer, as most will agree I’m sure. I probably wouldn’t have selected this book off the shelf if it hadn’t been recommended mainly because it’s not my go-to kind of story. But I’m glad I read it. It’s enlightening and eye-opening as to what others have endured in order to survive if not thrive.

Next time, I’m reading A House Divided by Sulari Gentill. This story is the first in a series of eight historical crime fiction stories by this author set in the 1930s. Time to head to the library to pick up a copy and return Anil’s Ghost.

Happy reading!


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Martha “Patsy” Custis manages an immense eighteenth-century plantation in the Virginia colony. But as a young widow she’s hard pressed to balance her business and to care for her two young children. They need a father and protector. She needs a husband and business partner…one she can trust, especially now as tensions rise between the motherland and the American colonies. Her experience and education have sustained her thus far but when her life veers in an unexpected direction, she realizes she has so much more to learn.

Colonel George Washington takes an interest in her and she’s surprised to find him so sociable and appealing. They form an instant bond and she is certain he’ll be a likeable and loving husband and father figure for her children. She envisions a quiet life at Mount Vernon, working together to provide for their extended family.

But when trouble in the form of British oppression, taxes, and royal arrogance leads to revolt and revolution, George must choose between duty to country and Martha. Compelled to take matters into her own hands, Martha must decide whether to remain where she belongs or go with her husband… no matter what the dangerous future may hold.

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