Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero is so much more than the sum of its parts, that any attempt to isolate its elements feels doomed to fail: The novel's unusual structure would lend itself well to intricate diagramming, but this would be a mere intellectual exercise without the emotional weight lent by Ondaatje's elegant, meticulous prose.
The book begins with two sisters, Anna and Claire, who live on a farm with their father and a farmhand named Coop. It is Anna's book, and her defining moment is this: When she is 16, her father almost kills Coop after catching her and the farmhand having sex. Anna stabs her father in the shoulder with a shard of glass and then runs away, never to see Coop or her father again. From this point, time begins unspooling in both directions: forward, to Tahoe, where Coop becomes a poker shark, and to France, where Anna lives with her lover and studies the work of French poet Lucien Segura; and back, through the life and loves of Segura. These figures are all strung together by Anna, who is the only thing any of them have in common—she is the only first-person voice represented in the novel. The gently posed question: When is one the protagonist; when is one only a character in someone else's story?
Time here flows in all directions, and patterns and forms repeat themselves across continents and decades. As Anna says at one point: "It's like a villanelle, this inclination of going back to events in our past, the way the villanelle's form refuses to move forward in linear development, circling instead at those familiar moments of emotion." And then a quote from Nabokov, one of several used in the book: "Only the rereading counts."
And the book does circle, broadly, around Anna, telling stories of those whose lives intersect with hers. Divisadero's structure, concentric and hypnotic as it is, wouldn't mean much if the novel weren't so beautiful, but it is: This book wasn't written, it was crafted. Every elegant sentence demands the reader's full attention; nothing is wasted. Ondaatje is insightful but unobtrusive, never flashy, but always thoughtful, and Divisadero is quite simply the work of a tremendously accomplished novelist working at the height of his powers.