Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

I picked up Divisadero because it looked like it would be about the San Francisco area. I quickly learned that the Spanish word divisadero has at least two meanings. It can mean division or dividing place; for example, Divisadero in San Francisco was, in former times, the dividing line between the city of San Francisco and the Presidio. It can also mean what you can see from a high point, such as standing on top of a mountain. In the book, consider the symbolism of looking down from high places, from the farm hand’s cabin on top of the hill above Glen Ellen and from the belfry of the church in France. Sometimes what you think you see from on high is not actually what you are seeing.

Ondaatje is the author of The English Patient. I remember seeing the film and that it was not what I expected, more cerebral. Likewise, Divisadero can be enjoyed on several levels. An English class could use it to explore character and symbolism. What is the symbolism of the Blue Table? In the beginning of the book, the main character Anna starts painting a table blue at the cabin of her lover just before things go sideways in her life. The lover of the French author Lucien has a blue table in her kitchen. Eventually Lucien goes to that house to do his writing and the blue table eventually shows up at his main house. It is found there by Anna many years later when she is researching Lucien’s life.

The story starts with three characters, Anna, her adopted sister Claire and their farmhand Coop. Anna’s mother died in childbirth. Her husband brought home another little girl from the hospital with Anna and raised them together. The family on the next farm were murdered by their farm hand, all except Coop who was four and hid under the floorboard for several days until he could safely come out. He is also taken into the family as a farm hand.

The story moves from the farm to the casinos of Nevada to the countryside of France during and after World War II. The writing is beautiful, lyrical, evocative. I could see the scenes clearly but also there is a dreamy quality to the writing.

“How we are almost nothing. We think, in our youth, we are the centre of the universe, but we simply respond, go this way or that by accident, survive or improve by the luck of the draw, with little choice or determination on our part. Years later, if he had been able to look back, Coop might have attempted to discern or reconsider aspects of his or Claire’s or Anna’s character, but when he had waved back to them, standing in the afternoon sunlight, Anna and Claire were interchangeable, one yellow shirt, one green, and he would not have been able to tell who wore this or that colour. And when he was back in the darkness of the water tank, there was just a retrospective image of the two girls, a tree branch partially concealing their identities and their waving arms” (p. 23).

This book would make a lovely lazy read at the beach house or cosied up in front of a fireplace with a cup of fragrant tea. Enjoy!

It is also available on CD.

Ondaatje, M. (2007). Divisadero. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 273 pages. ISBN: 978-0-307-26635-4.



About KLevenson

I am Teacher Librarian at Piedmont High School in the San Francisco East Bay. I am a part time reference Librarian I for the San Francisco Public Library. I have a Masters in Library and Information Sciences from San Jose State and a Teacher Librarian credential in addition to my teaching credential in Science. My first MA was from Harvard in Archaeology. My students teach me something new every time I am with them!
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