In Praise Of Ondaatje's Gloriously Intoxicating 'Lion' Author Kamila Shamsie owns two copies of Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion so that no matter where she is, she can always slip into the novel's vital, heart-stopping world.
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In Praise Of Ondaatje's Gloriously Intoxicating 'Lion'

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In Praise Of Ondaatje's Gloriously Intoxicating 'Lion'


In Praise Of Ondaatje's Gloriously Intoxicating 'Lion'

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Author Kamila Shamsie loves books that intertwine the personal with the political, and her latest novel, "Burnt Shadows," is exactly that kind of story. It spans over half a century and travels from Nagasaki to Guantanamo Bay to Delhi.

For our series You Must Read This, where authors talk about the books they love, Shamsie chose a novel much like the sort that she writes herself.

Ms. KAMILA SHAMSIE (Author, "Burnt Shadows"): There are certain books I claim to love and recommend to many of my friends, but it's not really love.

I know this because there are other books which I do truly deeply love. I love them so much that I can't risk giving them to friends who might not adore them as well - how can I be sure the friendship will survive such a blow?

And yet, it is also a quality of love to want to announce it from the rooftops. So here I am, telling anyone who will listen, of my love for Michael Ondaatje's "In the Skin of a Lion."

To many people, Ondaatje is the author of "The English Patient." But how many of you are aware that "In the Skin of a Lion" is a prequel of sorts? The characters of the young nurse, Hana, and the wounded thief, Caravaggio, both appeared in this book first.

It's a book about lovers, yes, but it's also about anarchists and actresses, thieves and bridge builders, migrants and mavericks.

In addition, it is a book of many moods. There is real anger in it about the way the powerful take advantage of those who work the hardest; there is incredible tenderness between friends and lovers; there are flashes of unexpected humor; and there are some truly heart-stopping moments.

Binding it all together is writing filled with the most glorious, startling images. One of my favorites is the image of a nun falling off a bridge at night like a black-garbed bird, her plummeting body illuminated by the light spraying down from a flare.

The characters are full of passion. Unexpected events keep happening without seeming contrived. Tiny details acquire great significance.

It's as though Ondaatje is showing us the world through a magic magnifying glass, which enlarges everything that is vital and interesting and obliterates all that is dull. When I read it, every nerve ending which has been desensitized by an onslaught of news and facts in the real world suddenly starts to feel love and anger, terror and wonder more passionately than before.

When sitting down to think about how to convey my love for this book, I tried to calculate how many times I've read it. I can't. It long ago stopped being one of those books I need to read from beginning to end and instead, is a book I keep by my bedside at all times. I have one copy in London, one copy in Karachi, so that no matter which of my homes I'm in, I can enter the intoxicating world Ondaatje creates.

So now I've done it. I've gone public with the object of my affection. I've got to admit it makes me nervous. If you read the book, maybe you'll tell other people about it, or maybe, like me, you'll want to keep it for yourself until the day you can hold it in no longer, and then you'll shout it out from the rooftops or over the airwaves.

NORRIS: Kamila Shamsie, she's the author of the novel, "Burnt Shadows." You can read an excerpt of "In the Skin of a Lion" and all the essays in our series You Must Read This, at our Web site,

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