June 05, 2000 12:00 PM

by Michael Ondaatje

Ondaatje’s exquisite Booker Prize-winning novel, 1992’s The English Patient, is a tough act to follow. Happily, his latest effort—about an American-educated forensic pathologist who returns to her native Sri Lanka to help investigate civil war-related massacres—is an honorable successor. Ondaatje, who himself was born in Sri Lanka, writes tenderly of the verdant landscape and centuries-old customs, while deftly layering themes and characters to reveal how history, brutality, loss and, in Anil’s case, distance shape people. Certain subplots founder, but there’s more that captivates, such as the image of the artisan who paints the eyes on Buddha statues. He faces away from them, looking in a mirror and holding a brush over his shoulder so as not to meet the figure’s gaze directly. It is tempting, Ondaatje seems to say, to hold oneself above the fray, but salvation may be found in the simple act of seeing. (Knopf, S25)

Bottom Line: Exotic gem

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