The story of Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje is grounded in the violent dispersal of an already unusual family, and then follows the scattered pieces of people around the globe as they continue their fractured lives, echoing the patterns of other wounded souls that have come before. While the story opens in 1970s rural California farmland, it was not until several chapters in that I realized this was the case -- indeed, the early lives described seemed more fitting for the late 1800s or early 1900s... something post-gold rush and tarnished with the failure of grand dreams. Be warned that even though we get many perspectives in this novel, we may never be told anything that's true, or perhaps there's no way to know if what we remember is true or if it has altered in our memories. Anna, one of the main characters of the novel, tells us that she comes from Divisadero Street in San Francisco (which the reader can immediately identify as a lie, as we've already learned about her childhood in rural Northern California). Of course, the way she describes the word and its origins seems apt for the past the shaped her. “Divisadero, from the Spanish word for ‘division,’ the street that at one time was the dividing line between San Francisco and the fields of the Presidio. Or it might derive from the word divisar, meaning ‘to gaze at something from a distance.’ ” In this novel, when dealing with a first person perspective, we usually have several years' distance between the telling and the event.

A man and his wife take in a neighbor boy named Coop after he witnesses the brutal murder of his own family. Shortly thereafter, the wife dies in childbirth and the man brings home not just his own daughter, Anna, but another little girl, Claire, whose mother met the same fate as his wife, as though he was still owed another person by the hospital. The girls are raised not just as sisters, but with the linked consciousness of twins. The children inhabit their own world that revolves around the quiet life of the farm until they inevitably grow up and feel more complicated emotions for each other. Anna and Coop start a relationship and when Anna's father stumbles upon them together, he beats Coop senseless. Perhaps the only thing that stops him from killing the boy is Anna, who stabs her father with a shard of glass. Her father then drags Anna away in the middle of a storm and the family is never whole again.

The book examines the lives of these three near-siblings in fragmented pieces, shifting perspectives and leaving out blocks of time so that we only see small sections of their lives since the violence that drove them apart. Anna is in France, researching a once-famous writer named Lucien Segura and beginning a relationship with a man who, as a child, knew Segura. After escaping her father as he drove her away from the farm, Anna never contacted anyone in her family again -- not her father, not Coop, not even Claire -- and never speaks about her origins with anyone. Claire works for a legal defender's office, hunting down the answers in other people's lives when she can no longer tie up the loose ends within her own. She remains the only child who still sees their father, visiting the farm on weekends to ride her horse through the hills. Coop, meanwhile, found himself in a vagabond existence as a gambler, winning money by playing cards and perhaps not realizing that the deck is stacked against him. Claire found Coop after the violent beating from their father and again finds him after another such incident. History repeats itself.

Divisadero was a book club selection and there were a wide variety of opinions about it... which makes for fantastic discussion. So even though I did not love this book, I did love the discussion that it drew from us. Rather than purchase the paperback, I bought the audio version, as read by Hope Davis. Ms. Davis has a beautiful voice and does an incredible job reading this novel; her French pronunciation in particular was lovely and it wasn't even until my book club met that I realized I took that for granted. When they learned that I had listened to the audio version, everyone demanded that I tell them how to pronounce several names and places from within the novel which then seemed odd to me to see in print. Ultimately, I found Divisadero to move incredibly slowly (I kept checking to see how much time was left of the file on my ipod, which is never a good sign) and while it was very easy to sit back and let Ms. Davis's voice wash over me, I wasn't terribly invested in the characters and so I just let the audio roll by. The only negative aspect of the audio version is the fact that shifting perspectives often mean that you're left a bit confused for a moment as you realize the narrator has shifted. At least with the book in front of you, you might realize a bit late, but go back to re-read what you had misinterpreted as belonging to a different voice. It was too much trouble to bother with that for audio and besides, it wasn't as though ten-minute sections would pass before such a realization.

Other members of book club adored the book, but those of us in the anti-camp had bigger issues with certain discrepancies in time and the lack of motivation for several characters. One person described most of them as wandering about, uncertain as to who they really are, to the point where it was surprising they hadn't been hit by a car by now for their dazed existence. Everyone seemed to have mixed feelings on just about everyone and everything, from the setting to the believability of the family make-up to the lack of communication between them in later years and so on. In addition to Anna, Coop, and Claire, we also go back to look at Lucien Segura (the author that Anna is researching) and his own broken, complicated family relationships, which take over the narrative before you even realize that we'll never get back to Anna, Coop and Claire. It was a bit of a disappointment to realize that Ondaantje has no intentions of coming to some resolution for them... which perhaps isn't surprising, but it's like failing to realize that your last interaction with a person actually was your last. There was no opportunity to say goodbye or process that this would be the last time. I also felt a bit surprised when Segura became a larger focus of book in the second half, as I had rather assumed he wouldn't enter the narrative at all.

The three not-quite-siblings in this novel are all a bit broken, forever defined by this one violent action in their lives that drove them apart. We talked a lot about what violence does to change people (Coop was the focal point of that discussion, having seen one family murdered and another destroyed) and whether one can really have one's existence defined in such a way in reality. Someone commented that Ondaatje wrote this novel as though it was a depiction of real life -- you get pieces of the picture and never a single, clear narrative. These are broken lives, which rest well in a broken narrative. It goes off on tangents and you may never fully understand a person's motivation or background... or perhaps you come close before being taken off to something else. While this might be the only real way to account for Ondaatje's vision of the novel, it hardly feels satisfying. The quality of the writing seems to demand more, but so it goes. Satisfaction is not his objective. The writing is lovely, but if you do opt to read this novel, I suggest that you do so with someone else so you can discuss it afterward, rather than stew in the book's unanswered questions.

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