Text Review: Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

Anil's Ghost

Anil's Ghost

See practise HSC and school questions for Crime Writing.

Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje is one of the texts for Extension English 1: Genre – Crime Fiction. I borrowed this book from the library recently, not because I was tutoring it, but because I was just curious. I had really enjoyed The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini – and the library’s website had recommended Anil’s Ghost for readers who liked The Kite Runner.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really enjoy this read.

The first half of the novel is incredibly disjointed, surreal yet dull that it is hard to remain engaged. The commentary by the narrator often seems irrelevant to the plot, such that it was difficult to follow what was going on much less be interested by what as going on! But perhaps this is a novel that requires re-reading to fully understand it?

The aspects which I did enjoy were the conclusion and the section The Mouse about Sarath’s brother, Gamini. This was an interesting read, because it focused on character in a way that intrigued me with bits of information, without being too jumbled and putting me off.

Crime Fiction Conventions:

Consider the following as you read:

  1. In what ways is Anil’s Ghost a modern crime fiction?
  2. How is the detective work carried out?
  3. What does Ondaatje also show us about war and political turmoil through the crime fiction genre?
  4. How is the focus on the identification of the victim a subversion of the crime fiction genre?
  5. Anil’s Ghost does not focus on explaining who killed Sailor and why – does this follow the crime fiction genre?
  6. Does the setting following the crime fiction conventions?
  7. Is Anil the stereotypical detective?
  8. What is Ondaatje saying about good and evil? Guilt and innocence?

Plot Summary (from Wikipedia)

The story opens up in early March as Anil arrives in Sri Lanka after a 15 year absence abroad. Her visit comes as a result of the increasing number of deaths in Sri Lanka from all the warring sides in the 1980s’ civil war. While on an expedition with archeologist Sarath, Anil notices that the bones of a certain skeleton do not seem to be 6th century like the rest which leads her to conclude that the skeleton must be a recent death. Unsure where Sarath’s political allegiance lies, Anil is skeptical of his help, but agrees to it anyway.

Along their journey to identify the skeleton, nicknamed Sailor, Anil becomes increasingly suspicious of Sarath. She begins to question his motives and sees his comments as a hint for her to censor herself since their discovery would implicate the Sri Lankan government in the death of Sailor. Later, Anil and Sarath visit his former teacher, Palipana, hoping to have him confirm their suspicions. Palipana then suggests having a reconstruction of the face done so that others might identify him. They agree to do so and head on to a small village named Galapitigama.

There Anil meets Sarath’s brother, Gamini, an emergency doctor. They discover that he is intricately involved in the country’s affairs and daily struggles to save the lives of numerous victims. Gamini helps them with a fellow Sri Lankan whose hands have been nailed at which Gamini explains to them about the different atrocities that the citizens face as a result of the civil war. Later on, Anil and Sarath meet with Ananda, whom they hope can reconstruct the face of Sailor for them. Ananda does so, and in the process attempts suicide, only to be rescued by Anil. Anil and Sarath eventually are able to identify Sailor in a small village.

As Anil prepares a report to present claiming that the skeleton was a recent death, the skeleton of Sailor disappears. Frustrated, she continues on with her presentation with another skeleton but is upset when Sarath ridicules her and claims she cannot make any claims about government involvement with the skeleton she has. Angry and betrayed, Anil’s belongings and research are seized and by the time she leaves the building she is left with nothing. Once outside, she meets Sarath, who surprises her with the body of Sailor that he has placed in a van. Sarath instructs her to leave quickly and catch a plane out of the country. Relieved, Anil leaves in the hope that the evidence will be sufficient. Sarath’s actions however have severe consequences.


7 comments for “Text Review: Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

  1. Kym
    September 23, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    I agree with you about how boring a read Anil’s Ghost is. However, I believe it fits in better with the Crime Writing rubric compared to my other prescribed texts.

    • tutortales
      September 24, 2010 at 3:56 pm

      Oh ok – I haven’t read the other prescribed texts yet, so I thought Anil’s Ghost was actually quite unconventional! TT

  2. Tony
    September 24, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    Anil’s Ghost isn’t exactly the best read out there and is certainly difficult to understand but its gold mine for thematic concerns relevant to the evolution and changing nature of the crime fiction. I studied the novel as a prescribed text, didn’t like it at all but I wouldn’t want to write an essay for any other text out there

  3. October 4, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    ‘Anil’s Ghost’ was a really unexpected read for me – the main protagonist Anil was a very weird character, unlike anyone I’ve ever met, real or otherwise. However, she does make the text interesting, and I actually did enjoy reading it after the first fifty or so pages (my teacher suggested the confusing nature of this part of the book was the author’s successful attempt at mirroring Anil’s own confusion that she felt when she returned to Sri Lanka).

    I thought that it was a particularly good text for Crime Writing – it subverts the genre particularly well and is a good text for the context-based questions one is likely to recieve in the HSC, much easier than ‘Rear Window’ or ‘The Real Inspector Hound’.

  4. Jon Balkan
    June 5, 2011 at 12:51 am

    One of the WORST books I have ever read.

  5. Anon
    June 9, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    No offence TT but I think you were bogged down by trying to make sense of the book at each part and by trying to place its relevance to the novel as a whole. I think you didn’t get the full impact of the message because you were so caught up with trying to fit the fragmented structure and delineated storyline. into a sense-making format, which is why the novel is such a good read and so relevant to crime writing (in my humble opinion, you’re awesome btw). I personally found it difficult to get a handle on his storytelling at first, but when I just let it flow, it naturally made sense for me
    Ondaatje’s structure can be off putting but I personally think it’s his ingenius way of painting Sri Lanka in the 80’s with all the chaos and turmoil of the war and like in the Real Inspector Hound, Ondaatje questions the ability to make sense of humanity – such as the reason for war. It’s within the framework that he depicts the search for justice, embodied in Anil’s mission but serving as a stark contrast is Sarath whose values are directly opposed to Anil. One example is their differing perspectives on truth – a core theme in Crime Fiction. It is through Ondaatje’s complex layering, post modernist piecing together of the story that he depicts truth as a questionable concept in today’s society – truly reflective of context. .
    There are really so many levels in this book and it’s so rich in content and concerns that it makes it a fantastic read – but that’s just an opinion.

  6. William L.
    July 5, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    It’s quite an interesting read if you ignore some of the irrelevant bits. There is a lot to do with the corrupt nature of Sri Lanka at the time, making it a great novel to link with the hard boiled genre.

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