Anil’s Ghost, by Michael Ondaatje, is an ambitious, haunting mosaic of a novel. This is Ondaatje at his best, the story told through the alternating voices of enigmatic and deeply seen characters who reveal themselves in gorgeous, startling prose as the novel unfolds.
The narrative takes place during the Sri Lankan Civil War, at a time of conflict between the government, the antigovernment insurgents and the separatist guerillas. Bodies disappear, later to appear in the sea, rivers, fields or crowded hospitals. More often, they become lost forever. Neighbors mistrust neighbors. People are afraid to ask questions.
Into this world steps Anil Tissera, who returns to her homeland after fifteen years abroad in England and America. A forensic anthropologist, Anil has been sent by an international human rights group to discover the source of the organized campaigns of murder on the island. With the help of Sarath, a Sri Lankan archeologist who is assigned to work with her, they discover a victim whose bones have been unearthed in a government protected area. Anil is determined to identify the body, but she cannot do so without the help of Sarath, whose ties to the government make him difficult to trust.
As the murder mystery unfolds, Ondaatje weaves in scenes from Anil and Sarath’s past—the lover Anil left behind, Sarath’s mysterious wife. We meet Gamini, Sarath’s younger brother, a doctor who has left the world behind to live and work at the hospital as the bodies come in, sleeping only for short spells on an unoccupied hospital bed. And Palipana, epigraphist and former teacher to Sarath, who brings them to meet Ananda, the artist who paints eyes on sacred statues. Anil and Sarath need Ananda to help recreate the features of the skeleton of the murdered man. Ananda, however, has fled his own tragedy, descending every morning deep into the mines, spending every night oblivious with drink.
No one, in Ondaatje’s novel, is without their ghost. They each struggle with complexities and contradictions, fears and desires. But beneath even the most dire of circumstances runs a pulse of life, a sensuous yearning for rain through the leaves, for a lover’s touch, for the redemptive power of what it means to be human, and for art.