I believe I have met my match in terms of audio books – Ondaatje just didn’t work for me in this medium, but I am fully willing to imagine that it is simply because of the complexity of his language and imagery and the failure of a magnetic strip to convey that information to my mind well.

Anil’s Ghost tells the story of a young woman, Anil, who returns to her native Sri Lanka after an absence of several years. She returns to assist the government with work studying ancient bones and using her skills as a forensic anthropologist. In the midst of this inquiry, she discovers a much more recent body of a man killed in the midst of the civil war raging there between the government at the Tamil Tigers. In the midst of identifying this man and trying to make this crime known, she meets several people and her life and theirs become interwoven.

As always, Ondaatje’s language is beautiful. It always reminds me of ribbons of satin that glide lightly across my lips – beautiful and rich. His portrayals of both sensuality and psychological are deep and complex, and the characters in this book are various and flawed and profound in the way that all humans are when we take the time to see each other. And Ondaatje’s use of the setting here is both interesting and fitting for the complicated and secretive plot of the story.

So my problem was not, I believe, with Ondaatje’s story but with my own inability to process it well when just hearing it. I often found myself losing track of characters because, I think, I wasn’t seeing their names and having a visual association with them. (It probably didn’t help that Sri Lankan names are totally new to me.) I also didn’t track well with the way the subplots layered onto the central story; I saw how everything came together, but I just wasn’t able to pick up the subtleties and depth that I know Ondaatje was very consciously working into the book.

Yet, still, I found listening to this book to be almost soothing despite the violence and upheaval of the story. I felt the same way reading The English Patient; there’s just something about Ondaatje’s writing that feels like liquid gold to me, like I’m bathing in sunlight.

So I would recommend this book, just not on tape. And if you’ve read it and have any thoughts, please do share. I’d love to know what you think and what I was missing by not reading it on the page.

Cover of Anil's Ghost by Michael OndaatjeAnil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje