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In Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje plots a course that doubles back through an undying past

(GERARD DUBOIS)

Divisadero
By Michael Ondaatje
Knopf, 273 pp., $25

The most soulful writers, like the great jazz musicians, will keep finding new ways to play the same gorgeous notes again and again. Michael Ondaatje's voice -- his prismatic perspective on time and memory, on the elegiac repetitions of life -- is so particular and distinctive that you can spot it at 20 yards: There is the dropped piece of color, signifying passion or death; there are the references both common (Dickens) and obscure (16th-century Italian epic poetry). Evident throughout his work, both fiction and memoir, are themes of displacement and family madness, the inevitable Faulknerian choreography between doom and desire. "We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell," thinks Anna, a scholar and archivist whose youthful passion holds the crux of "Divisadero." Because she cannot bear the weight or consequence of her past, she buries herself in the lives of others.

"Divisadero" is a haunting, meticulously conceived novel broken like a mirror into two parts -- its shards jagged and dangerous, essential to each other to become whole. The first story takes place in Northern California in the 1980s, on a farm near Petaluma, where two young sisters rise each day to help their father and the hired hand, Coop, with the cows and horses. But Coop is more son than employee, just as Anna and Claire are a mirage of souls growing up together but unrelated. After Anna's mother died in childbirth, her father, finding the infant Claire orphaned in the same hospital, brought home both girls to raise alone. And Coop was a boy on a neighboring ranch; when his parents were killed in an act of random violence, the girls' family took him in. Shimmering in the rough perfection of youth, the sisters and Coop form a classic triangle, with the attendant themes of longing and brotherly love just waiting to happen: When the father finds Anna in the arms of Coop, he beats the young man nearly to death. And so the three disperse like milkweed in the wind, leaving the father, Lear-like, with his empty rage.

It might just as well have been Claire instead of Anna; as the title of "Divisadero" testifies, this is a novel about split identity -- about the borderlands between heart and skin that test and define us all. It is Claire who finds Coop, half- conscious, and drags him to safety; Claire who finds him again, years later, in the backlands of Nevada -- stacking the deck for a living as a card sharp and getting out of town just before dawn. Loving Anna as he did, the young man has already proven that he "loved risk and could be passive around danger"; all the playing cards do is put a red-and-black definition to that fundamental character.

Cut to rural France two decades later, where Anna has become somebody else -- changed her name, lost her heart to another man, returned to the safety of the past and the dead to find her stories. Now she is a little like Hana in "The English Patient," with her chopped-off hair and her noble, fractured heart; Ondaatje is one of the few living writers who seem to visualize history itself as a map. Throughout the novel there are signature references to this shifting tide of artistic media: memory is a villanelle; history is a collage; the colors of a poker game owe as much to Stendhal as to cards. When Anna whimsically hangs out a Buddhist prayer flag as a girl, she explains the panels to a still-innocent Coop: "The red is fire -- the one we must escape." That tossed-off prophecy holds true throughout the novel; it is just one of a score of details that give "Divisadero" the texture of a hand - woven tapestry.

Anna has gone to the French village of Demu to research the life of writer Lucien Segura , and it is his story, as a boy attached to a young neighbor woman, then as a reclusive writer who flees his own family, that takes up the rest of the novel. A middle-aged Frenchman who figures hugely in Anna's present-day life will turn out to have had ties to Lucien in his youth, while Lucien's own drama will emerge against a backdrop of love and grief and, inevitably, the First World War. As rich as this section is, Ondaatje's quest for meaning in the vast canvas of life is what also makes the novel stumble. The story of Claire, Anna, and Coop has been so captivating that it's difficult to leave them behind, even for this promise of a parallel universe. His passion and erudition, his very emotionality, are what prevent Ondaatje from being solely a novelist of ideas -- but in conceiving and composing "Divisadero" as an opus in two parts, he has fallen in love more with the refrains and signature moments of humanity than with the individual stories. While one admires the beauty of particularities in the last half of the novel, you can't help longing (as Anna must) for the greater sweep of the entire story that shaped them all.

As for those specific moments: Ondaatje is a master at constructing breathtaking passages dropped in as casually as stars in a night sky; they range here from a mother's burial to a horse gone mad in a barn. Lucien the writer will give the gift of language to a girl who cannot read; the boulders along life's path ensure that she will later read to him. These all make up the constellation that is "Divisadero," an exquisitely realized novel even when it suffers from its own intentional sacrifices. "It is the hunger, what we do not have, that holds us together," thinks Anna. From this emptiness -- this central void and anguish, reaching toward the sky -- Ondaatje, cartographer extraordinaire, has created a map of rise and dimension and near-mythic detail.

Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at caldwell@globe.com.

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