I began Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje with very few preconceived ideas or expectations aside from the fact that I had enjoyed The English Patient when I studied it for A level several years ago. As it is very rare to find a book which you can still love and enjoy after pulling apart and analysing each sentence I should not have been surprised at how carefully structured and intricately balanced Anil’s Ghost was. Nevertheless, this book quickly became my constant companion and I could almost not bear to finish it. It follows Anil, a forensic pathologist, who returns to the country where she was born, Sri Lanka, to investigate crimes against human rights for the UN during the ongoing civil war. She arrives in the country after a long absence, more of a foreigner than a citizen since she has forgotten how to speak Sinhalese and no friendly face awaits her. Whilst there she is teamed with a reputable archaeologist, Sarath, who shows her a selection of skeletons, three are centuries old but the other is much newer, buried with them in an attempt to disguise its provenance. Anil then uses this as a focal point for her investigation into the government’s actions as well as using its supposed antiquity as an excuse for when her curiosity becomes too dangerous.
However, while the immediate plot is fascinating, as it demonstrates how the civil war fractured Sri Lankan society in a myriad of ways, it was the individual anecdotes woven into the central narrative which affected me the most. They allowed Ondaatje to explore how grief can possibly be approached or acknowledged when a whole country is overwhelmed in tragedy and violence continues to engulf them. People still die from disease and old age even as their surroundings are overtaken by the war and they act as a reminder that normalcy continues to find a place in their world. These deaths still need to be grieved even as unexplained disappearances demand sorrow and lives adapt to new circumstances. One doctor is kidnapped from a luxurious life in private practice and forced to aid the rebels but finds his new life strangely satisfying while another exhausts himself through constant work at an overcrowded hospital, often being mistaken for a patient. An old man becomes blind and lives in near solitude in a forest monastery but he cannot escape the outside world forever. Anil’s encounters or experiences with these people and others are also intertwined with her memories of life in America and London – her thoughts of noisy bowling lanes accentuate the silence of the rice paddy she stands in and questions what normalcy actually means. The Sri Lanka that is described in the book is seen through this filter of Anil’s interpretation as she learns to accept her status as an outsider even when remembering her homesickness in the past for Sri Lanka. Ondaatje’s pride in his Sri Lankan heritage is apparent throughout the book as even at the darkest points in the narrative everyday Sri Lankan people are shown to be compassionate and have great inner strength which helps them survive the brutal period in their country’s history.
Anil’s Ghost is one of the few books that I was already planning to reread before I had finished it and I expect that I will have reread it at least once by the end of the year. Ondaatje’s writing is so subtle and his characters reveal themselves so carefully that I know I will discover more with every visit. Since finishing it I have continued to think about Ondaatje’s characters, and their experiences and eventual fates have continued to affect me. I would highly recommend it and am very happy to discuss it at great length if anyone is interested!