A Simple Sentence

Michael Ondaatje’s novel In The Skin of a Lion (1987) is full of exquisite detail, used in bringing to life some beautifully crafted characters and extraordinary events. It’s a book that moves from a brilliantly rendered Canadian river to a palatial waterworks plant via a stolen yacht, a mushroom factory, a prison and a house aflame. Ondaatje’s command of language is absolute; no matter how unlikely the situation he does not fall into cartoonishness, and even though some of his more colourful characters risk caricature, he expertly keeps them from crossing that line. And yet for all this, the one sentence of the novel that caught me most off guard is simple and declarative, possessed of some less ornate form of the magic the author uses elsewhere. I stopped, copied the sentence out onto a notepad and stared at it for a while.1

The waitress with the tattoo gave him his coffee.

What was it about these nine words that had stopped me in my tracks? My immediate impression of the sentence was of its crystalline clarity; it gives the reader an action perfectly, and more than that it gives us a scene. We have been introduced to this waitress a couple of chapters before. She was the subject of four paragraphs in which Ondaatje gives us his protagonist’s impressions of her: she is silent, adept at her job, complete in and of herself, and harmoniously integrated with her workplace. She is the subject of Patrick’s somewhat melancholy attention only briefly on the page, though she represents something important to him: a part of his routine. The waitress’s constancy is reassuring to Patrick amid the absences and uncertainties elsewhere in his life. Her tattoo is mentioned only briefly, its primary purpose here being to serve as a hint of personal detail, enough to allow for the possibility that away from the Thompson Grill she leads a rich, unknowable life.

All that is required for Ondaatje to reprise those feelings a dozen pages later is the presence of this detail. He includes mention of the tattoo in the waitress’s one sentence appearance and all of Patrick’s feelings about what she represents arise again in the reader’s mind. It is a powerful trick that works so subtly in bringing extra colour to the later passage that the reader may not even be aware of it.

As well as performing this tonal function the sentence is also appealing because it’s structurally immaculate. There are the paired Ws of ‘waitress’ and ‘with’, neatly mirrored by the symmetrically placed paired Hs of ‘him’ and ‘his’. Then there is the cute match of paired consonants and paired vowels that occurs in both ‘tattoo’ and ‘coffee’. It looks great on the page, and gives the reader the little thrill of that elongated vowel sound at the middle and end of the sentence: ‘oo’, ‘ee’.

And what about that word ‘tattoo’? It’s the most unusual of the nine; the most exotic sounding; the most unlikely: just three Ts and a couple of vowels. Ondaatje has placed it dead center in terms of both word and syllable count, lending it a nice primacy. As it completes the description of the waitress it also marks a natural pause when read, separating the sentence into two pieces of seven and five syllables respectively. Coupled with this, the fact that the stress falls on the first syllable of each of the disyllabic words and that they are preceded by one, two and three monosyllabic words respectively, gives the sentence real rhythm. The staccato triplet of ‘gave him his’ after the natural pause propels the reader towards the end of the sentence and that second elongated vowel sound.

It’s wonderful, poetic writing: a simple, finely crafted piece of description that has emotional colour to it and is rhythmically pleasing to the reader’s mind.

  1. The sentence in question is on page 128 of the 1988 Picador edition. ↩︎

Adam Wood @adam