Divisadero, By Michael Ondaatje

In his tale of a lovelorn gambler, Michael Ondaatje daringly reveals his own hand
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Whereas The English Patient's Count Almasy carried his battered copy of Herodotus and his horrific injuries, the scars of Divisadero's characters are for the most part invisible but no less extreme. Michael Ondaatje writes in a note that the whole sweep of his layered novel of private histories came from one line of a song: "If any of you on your journeys see her – shout to me, whistle..."

Opening in California in the 1970s, with a violently destroyed love affair, the novel travels both back to wartime France, and forward to the lovers', Anna and Coup's, ruptured present. Throughout we see that long, hopeless backward glance. He becomes a gambler, she an archivist – entirely lost to each other yet remaining "possibilities" any time a phone rings. Ondaatje's novels often contain extraordinary artisans who stand in for artists – Almasy, the map maker, the thief Caravaggio (who briefly re-appears here), the bomb diffuser, Kip, the DNA scientist of Anil's Ghost or the acrobatic builders of Toronto of In the Skin of a Lion. In place of such self-conscious shadows, Divisadero offers us not one writer but two: Anna, and her latest subject, a French poet, Lucien Segura.

The sensual and meditative are resonantly tangled up, as so often in Ondaatje's work, taking on a particular force in a novel that argues so passionately for fiction as a means of survival. "So we fall in love with ghosts," he writes of the partial version of herself that Anna shares with her lovers; the lyricism offers a premonition of exactly what will happen – quite literally – in the novel's final elegiac section. Segura's own life – his own shadow over the marriage of a young girl – is swiftly told in the novel's last 100 pages, with an almost distracting potency. As "researched" by Anna, this story is rich with echoes of the French novelists of Segura's childhood, offering a similarly fantastical world of gentle thieves, tiny chances, disguise, misplaced desire and wish fulfilment, in which the dead live and the lost are found or almost re-found. Segura notes of his lover: "She had, like one of those partially villainous and always evolving heroines," as deftly as a card, "turned his heart over on the wrong day."

The novel's mysterious title comes from the name of a street in San Francisco (one of fragmented and restless Anna's many temporary homes) and means both a separation and a distant gaze. The word seems to conjure an escape, yet simultaneously that long look, almost a quest. Coup, after losing Anna, self-protectively, chooses only women he feels he won't love. It's a tactic that falters only once, when he first sees his girlfriend, a singer, on stage. He might be the gambler, but in Divisadero it's Ondaatje who so daringly reveals his own hand. Watching her, transfigured, so too is Coup: "There was nothing," he thinks, "too prepared or controlled about the performance. She was enlarged." It's hard to think of a more apt description for Ondaatje's powerfully affecting consideration of the writer's lonely spotlight, or for the great humanity he locates in men and women's hopeful addiction to "enchantment" – as much in each others' arms as in the pages of novels.